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.

Ineffective Service of Process Will Not Toll the Statute of Limitations in Tennessee: Act Fast in Obtaining (or Correcting) Service

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post explaining that, under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 3, just because you filed a timely lawsuit, doesn’t mean that you don’t have statute of limitations issues–you have to also accomplish prompt and timely service of process.

Recently, the Tennessee Court Appeals re-visited that issue in Kimberly Urban v. Robin Nichols, and it came to the same conclusion. In the Urban case, the Plaintiff filed the lawsuit within the one year statute of limitations, but the Plaintiff delayed in obtaining valid service of process and, worse, delayed in correcting her defective efforts to obtain service. The Court found that the ineffective service, followed by the long delay in correcting the service, failed to prevent the statute of limitations from expiring. Accordingly, the Court dismissed the lawsuit.

But, basically, that’s the same law as the blog post from April, right? Yes, but what I found interesting about this new case is that, if the Plaintiff had been diligent about correcting the ineffective service of process, the Court would have cut her some slack.

In fact, the Court said she could have amended her Complaint under Rule 15 to correct the defective name of one of the defendants or she could have issued new summons. If she had made any of these corrective efforts in a timely fashion, the Court suggests, the case would not have been dismissed on the technicalities, since Tennessee law and policy favor litigants to amend their pleadings to have disputes resolved on the merits.

So, the moral of the story may be: If you make a technical error, act fast in getting it fixed or at least brought before the Court.

A Filed, but Not Served Complaint, May Not Prevent the Statute of Limitations from Expiring under Rule 3

The Court of Appeals issued an interesting case yesterday to remind us all about the importance of prompt service of process. This case is Amresco Independence Funding, LLC v Renegate Mountain Golf Club, LLC (Tenn. Crt. Apps., Mar. 31, 2015, No. E2014-01160-COA-R3-CV), and the full text can be found here.

The basic facts are that the Plaintiff filed a collection lawsuit against Defendant, but did not obtain valid and timely service of process of the Complaint. Then, after the statute of limitations expired and after one year from the date that the original Summons was issued, the Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss. In the Motion, the Defendant argued that any new Summons would not relate back to the Complaint filing date and, as a result, the lawsuit was too late.

This is a good argument. Under Tenn. Rule. Civ. P. 3:

If process remains unissued for 90 days or is not served within 90 days from issuance, regardless of the reason, the plaintiff cannot rely upon the original commencement to toll the running of a statute of limitations unless the plaintiff continues the action by obtaining issuance of new process within one year from issuance of the previous process or, if no process is issued, within one year of the filing of the complaint.

The Court of Appeals agreed with this analysis and upheld the dismissal.

So, as a rule of thumb, don’t think that because you filed your lawsuit that all your statute of limitations issues go away. Indeed, if you simply file the lawsuit and then don’t obtain service of process, your time-sensitive claims could potentially expire.

And this isn’t just a rule that penalizes lazy lawyers. I’ve filed lawsuits to satisfy deadlines, but then considered not serving the Summons because the parties were engaged in settlement talks or waiting for a sale or some other event to occur.

Under Rule 3, the mere filing of the lawsuit may not be enough to save your claims.