• June 24, 2016
Photo by Jonathan Rotondo-McCord

Photo by Jonathan Rotondo-McCord

Keith Melillo had a tough time serving Terry Heitland with a summons and complaint in connection with a car crash that Mr. Melillo was in. Melillo (or, more probably, his lawyer) tried the Sheriff’s office, then a private process server. No luck.

The next step was sending the summons and complaint by certified mail to Mr. Heitland. Lo and behold, Heitland signed, acknowledging receipt of the certified mail, lawyered up, and moved for the case to be dismissed due to improper service.

The district court agreed and dismissed the case against Heitland because the summons and complaint had not been properly served; the statute of limitation, in the mean time, had passed. Melillo’s case is dead.

Wait. Hold it. Heitland personally received the summons and complaint, personally acknowledged receiving the certified mail that included the summons and complaint within the statute of limitations period, and yet the Minnesota Supreme Court held that Melillo’s case was dismissed “with prejudice” (which is how lawyers say “forever/never to be brought again”) because the Defendant did not receive the summons and complaint exactly as set out in the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure?

Yep. Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug wrote for the Court that the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure, in particular, the rules on service of process, apply as written and if they are not followed precisely too bad, so sad… (I paraphrase).

The decision is not complicated. The reasoning is straightforward. Read the rules; apply the rules. Done. Still, though, given the consequences of the holding, can it be explained or justified in any other way? Was there something unjust, wrong, or inequitable about the way that Defendant Heitland received notice of the lawsuit?

Justice Lillehaug pointed out that Heitland only acknowledged receipt of a certified letter. He did not acknowledge receipt of a summons and complaint. Justice Lillehaug also pointed out that, under the rules, process servers must have knowledge that they are serving the summons and complaint. There is no reason to believe that the letter carrier knew the contents of the certified mail.

So, yes, there are real-world reasons for imposing strict formal rules for service of process.

In theory, defendants could be handed a “certified letter,” sign for it, and then toss it in the garbage or on a pile of mail to be opened at some later date (maybe long after the deadline for answering the summons and complaint). These scenarios might seem strange but they are not impossible and could result in the intended recipient being sued without knowing about it.

On the other hand, why is it important for process servers to have personal knowledge that they are serving a summons and complaint?

Well, imagine Plaintiff is having trouble serving a defendant, so he enlists the help of police officers who happen to be looking into juvenile delinquency in Defendant’s home. The officers wish to speak to two teenagers in the house who are “enjoying one another’s company.” The officers gain entry to the home.  Ignorant of their contents (and perhaps demonstrating deficits of chivalry and tact) they attempt to deliver the process papers to Defendant’s angry 17-year-old daughter, who refuses them and throws them out the door. (This really happened.) Again, there is an increased risk that the intended recipient could be sued without knowing about it.

So, again, the point of “service of process” is to give actual notice to defendants and the rules are strictly applied because the consequences of being dragged into a lawsuit without even knowing about it are extraordinarily severe. Carefully reviewing and punctiliously heeding the rules for service of process should be business as usual for Minnesota litigators.

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