Because of one process server on an airplane, your not-so-close “friends” may soon stop reading your Facebook messages.
One cannot easily forget the facts of Grace v. MacArthur, a famous civil procedure case in which the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas held the service of process to two non-citizens was valid when both men were flying in an airplane over the state of Arkansas. Process service is the delivery of legal papers to an individual, often to initiate a lawsuit or require an appearance in court. In reaching its decision, the court claimed that both men were within the “territorial limits” of the state, and therefore, they were fair game for process service when their flight entered Arkansas airspace. This case may be one of the extreme examples of process service to ever upheld. It is not intuitive that flying over a state puts you in their jurisdiction to serve you a complaint and drag you into court in that state. Nonetheless, a recent New York trial court’s holding might take that extreme one step further: cyber-service.
Imagine waking up one morning to a message notification on your Facebook from someone you know—someone you may communicate with on a daily basis from the comfort of your computer desk. Thinking nothing of it, you click on the notification, and discover that the message is actually a legal service of process against you. This could be one of many things: a service for some tort (or harm) you committed against the person a few years ago, divorce papers, or various other forms of costly litigation.
Before this holding, individuals would likely laugh at such a message, particularly if the individual was actively avoiding the person to prevent the service by moving out of state or simply avoiding the process server at all costs. Rules throughout the United States make it pretty hard for people with known addresses to avoid process service. . But this new potential rule changes everything—an absent his duties when suddenly, without even thinking, he opens a Facebook message from his ex-wife in New York containing a service of process for alimony and child support. Under this ruling, that deadbeat father would have received notice of the lawsuit, and therefore, be compelled to answer the service or risk having a default judgment entered against him, meaning that the judge would rule in favor of the ex-wife because the father did not contest it.
In this recent Manhattan Supreme Court case, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Matthew Cooper allowed Ellanora Baidoo to serve her elusive husband with divorce papers via a Facebook message. Baidoo and Blood-Dzraku were married in a civil ceremony in New York back in 2009, but their relationship deteriorated when Blood-Dzraku reneged on his promise to have a traditional Ghanaian wedding ceremony. As a result, the wedding was never consummated and the husband and wife never lived together. However, despite the fact that Baidoo has no idea where Blood-Dzraku is currently located, Blood-Dzraku made it clear through various Facebook messages that he did not want a divorce from his wife. According to Baidoo’s lawyer, the “last address plaintiff has for defendant is an apartment that he vacated in 2011.” Baidoo’s lawyer further asserted that Baidoo “has spoken with the defendant by telephone on occasion and he has told her that he has no fixed address and no place of employment. He has also refused to make himself available to be served with divorce papers.” Moreover, the “post office has no forwarding address for him, there is no billing address linked to his prepaid cell phone, and the Department of Motor Vehicles has no record of him,” the ruling says. Baidoo’s lawyer asserts that “[they] tried everything, including hiring a private detective—and nothing [worked.]”
Given the situation, Baidoo was “granted permission serve defendant with the divorce summons using a private message through Facebook,” with her lawyer messaging Victor Sena Blood-Dzraku, her estranged husband, through her account. Baidoo’s lawyer, Andrew Spinnell claimed that the ability to serve someone through social media is “new law, and it’s necessary.”
While being served through social media seems to give a new definition to the “territorial limits” language of Grace v. MacArthur, the benefits to this new law overall seem to outweigh the cons. The new rule will likely only target individuals who are willfully and knowingly trying to evade their responsibilities by evading the person trying to serve them. This tactic has been historically used to exploit the limits of Federalism and time and again has succeeded when the individual’s level of contact with the state has not been sufficient, or the individual leaves the state and never returns, sometimes taking their children with them, to avoid being served. Facebook would be a powerful way to counteract this exploitation–runaway tactic, because as long as the individual has social media, a person could send them service of process and notice of the lawsuit against them from any location across the world.
Generally, allowing this practice could result in an increase of successful judgments for plaintiffs filing suits against clearly guilty parties who are using evasion as a last-stitch effort to avoid paying up. Particularly in tort and family cases, this decision seems best from a public policy standpoint, ensuring victims are compensated for their injuries, child welfare is preserved, and ensuring that the wealthy cannot avoid their legal problems by simply up and moving the next day.
Others may argue that this new law would open the “floodgates” of litigation. But shouldn’t suits of this type have been brought in the first place? Ultimately, using an increase in litigation argument to denies these parties their right to relief in order to make life easier for judges and public officials. Furthermore, social media has been exponentially expanding in the legal realm, with law suits being brought for libelous statements made on Twitter, criminal consequences for cyber bullying, and individuals being fined or losing their employment over inappropriate comments or pictures posted on social media. It is undeniable that the current legal trend is to hold individuals as accountable for their actions on social media as they would be outside the digital realm.
It will be interesting to see if an appeal is filed for this ruling and if so, how high the case travels up the appeals courts. If the ruling is preserved, civil procedure law may change drastically, and individuals will need to be extra cautious about what they say and do online if people are coming after them with a lawsuit.