A very terrifying issue has been circulating in Tennessee courts (well, terrifying to the Tennessee creditor’s rights bar) over the past year regarding service of process in Tennessee.
It all relates to 13 very plain, unambiguous words: “The process server must be identified by name and address on the return.”
That text is from Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-901(b), and, over the past ten months, courts throughout the State have been, rightfully so, throwing out lawsuits and setting aside default judgments where a served warrant lacks the process server’s name and address.
Note: When a statute uses the phrase “must be,” you’d better do what it says.
Here’s why: Where the warrant lacks this required information, it doesn’t comply with Tennessee law for valid service of process. Where there’s no valid service of process, there’s no jurisdiction over the defendant. Where there’s no jurisdiction, the Court can’t grant valid relief in a judgment in the proceeding.
This seems like a very low requirement to satisfy (name and address?), but it’s a big deal because, if you’ve ever dealt with process servers and/or you’ve seen a served Summons/Civil Warrant, you have to be diligent and watch for this defect.
Here’s the good news: Yesterday, the Tennessee Legislature took a big step toward amending this statute to give plaintiffs some relief. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the proposed amendment (the House Bill is at 0393 (and the Senate Bill is at 0456). The proposed law would take effect on January 1, 2020.
Disclaimer: I’m the lead counsel–for the judgment debtor–on one of the two primary cases that brought this issue to a head in 2018.
Second Disclaimer: I’m one of the legislative liaisons with the Tennessee Bar Association who worked on this text and met with the Tennessee Legislators/sponsors a few weeks ago to change this statute.
Third Disclaimer: I’m arguing my case on the old law tomorrow in front of the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
All this reminds me of the old lawyer joke, the one where a lawyer sees a car crash, runs up, and says “I saw everything that happened, and I’ll take either side!”
It’s a funny joke, but, please know, for the next eight months…check your Summonses and Civil Warrants to make sure they comply with the existing law. If you don’t, that sound you’ll hear will probably sound like a car crash.