Who knew Pineapple Express had such technically accurate legal scenes?

Service of process can drive me and my clients crazy. Before filing the lawsuit, I am in total control of all aspects of the timing of the case, from the initial review to filing the Complaint.

But, once I file the complaint and send it to be served on the defendant, we are sometimes at the mercy of luck and a little bit of good timing.

Nobody wants to be served with a lawsuit (for obvious reasons), and, until you get them served, they have no responsibility to answer and the case doesn’t move forward.

In many cases, a plaintiff has to employ creative tactics to get the process into the hands of the defendant.

You’ve probably seen this in a movie, where the process server hides in the bushes, hands somebody a piece of paper, and yells “You’ve been served!” as he runs away.

So, yes, I thought about the opening sequence from Pineapple Express, when I read a recent opinion by Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Lyle about an evading defendant and an irritated process server, in Joyce B. Martin v. Devon Lawrence, et. al., Davidson County Chancery Court Case No. 20-1091-III.

In that case, the process server was knocking on the defendant’s door, had confirmed that the defendant was inside the house, and, when the defendant refused to come to the door, attempted service pursuant to Rule 4.04(1) by “plac[ing] the summons and complaint into a clear plastic sleeve and tap[ing] it to the glass front door before leaving the [Defendant’s house].”

(The opinion was silent on whether the process server yelled “You’ve been served!” as he walked away, but I would bet money that he did.)

On these facts, however, Chancellor Lyle found the service ineffective. Rule 4.04(1) provides that if a defendant “evades or attempts to evade service,” then the process server may perfect service of process “by leaving copies thereof at the individual’s dwelling house or usual place of abode with some person of suitable age and discretion then residing therein, whose name shall appear on the proof of service, or by delivering the copies to an agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service on behalf of the individual served.”

Citing this Rule’s plain language—which expressly imposes a requirement that the summons be left “with some person of suitable age and discretion then residing therein”—the Judge found that merely taping the summons to the outside of a home does not meet the statutory requirements, even under these circumstances.

(Note: You can read more analysis of this opinion (and see a full copy) by visiting the Nashville Bar Association’s Trial Court Opinion page, which will be updated soon with more notable decisions.)

In a surprise twist, then, Seth Rogen’s stoner private process server turns out to be a highly effective process server whose work would be approved even by Chancellor Lyle (though she may question other aspects about his…demeanor and tactics).

In each instance in the movie clip he, in fact, personally serves each person. We lawyers can be awful to watch movies with, since we love to nit-pick the accuracy of the Hollywood depictions of the job, but this sequence complies with the law (except the part when he’s driving and using illegal substances).

But, other than that–congratulations to Seth Rogen–this clip could be shown in a first-year Civil Procedure class. Who knew?

Insufficient Service of Process Arguments May be Recognized Under Tennessee Law

Note: This post contains updated information after its original posting date.

When it comes to creditor rights deficiency lawsuits, it’s rare that I see something new.

Most defendants’ Answers to my lawsuits to collect unpaid debts follow the same pattern: They admit the jurisdictional/party paragraphs, claim they lack sufficient information on the amount of the debt, and then deny all paragraphs alleging default and asking for a judgment.

Recently, however, I saw a creative argument that, honestly, freaked me out.

It was an Answer that contained the following “Affirmative Defense:”

Plaintiff’s claim should be dismissed due to insufficient service of process for failure to include required information on the Return of Service. The Return on Service of Summons for both Defendants fails to include the process server’s name and/or address as required by Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 4.01(2). See Lasher v. Robertson, No. 03A01-9402-CV-00075, 1994 WL 579972, *2-3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 24, 1994).

In that Lasher opinion, the Court of Appeals was faced with a return on a Summons that “contained only the date and the unreadable signature of the process server.” 

Two years later, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, alleging insufficient service of process of the lawsuit. That motion was granted.

Citing Tenn. R. Civ. P. 4.01, the Court of Appeals agreed.

For starters, “The process server must be identified by name and address on the return.” See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 4.01(2).   Further, “The person serving the summons shall promptly make proof of service to the court and shall identify the person served and shall describe the manner of service.” See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 4.03(1).

Applying those rules, the Court of Appeals wrote:

The Plaintiff’s process server met none of the requirements contained in Rule 4.01(2) of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. The process server was not identified by name and address on either the return of service or on the affidavit; he did not promptly and within the time during which the person served must respond, make proof of service to the Court; he did not identify the person served nor describe the manner of service. Even considering the very untimely filed affidavit of Daniel C. Derrick, the requirements of Rule 4.03(1) of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure still were not met. Indeed, the record is totally void of the location of Defendant Robertson’s residence. Neither Defendant filed an answer and there is no indication in the record before us of any documents being served upon either Defendant during the pendency of the proceedings in the lower Court.

Id. at *3.

Given the custom and practice regarding service of process Tennessee handling consumer and commercial collection lawsuits, this case and analysis can have broad reaching impact.

In the end, there’s a lesson here: (1) Include the process server’s name and address on the Summons; and (2) When in doubt, include the method, manner, and details of the service on your Summonses.