Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Service of Process Statutes Require Strict Compliance

In the past week the Third District has released two opinions relating to service of process.  In both cases a final judgment was reversed because service of process had not been accomplished.  The message is clear, if it wasn't before, service statutes must be strictly complied with.  Both decisions are discussed below.

The appellant appealed a summary judgment of foreclosure claiming that he had never been served.  The court stated: "Because the record unequivocally confirms that Opella was neither served with process nor waived service, we reverse."
While Bayview made a number of attempts to serve Opella individually and on behalf of 21 NW 59th Street, Inc., it never managed to serve process on him....Despite the fact that neither Opella  nor 21 NW 59th Street, Inc. had been served with process, Bayview moved for summary judgment against both, expressly alleging that “[s]ervice of process has been properly perfected upon the Defendants herein.”  Following a hearing on this motion, a final summary judgment of foreclosure was entered in pertinent part upon a finding that “[s]ervice of process has been duly and regularly obtained over NW 59TH STREET, INC., [and] STEVEN R. OPELLA . . . .
The Third District disagreed and stated "Because the record unequivocally confirms that no service of any kind was had on Opella, we agree [with Opella]." The court also stated:
We also reject Bayview’s argument that Opella and 21 NW 59th Street, Inc. failed to raise, and thereby waived, sufficiency of service of process in their “pro se answer.”  We reject this argument, first because neither Opella nor 21 NW 59th Street, Inc. filed a pro se answer or otherwise made an appearance in the court below.  Rather, one month after  it moved for summary judgment,  Bayview’s attorney, Brian L. Rosaler, concededly without agreement or authorization from Opella or 21 NW 59th Street, Inc., filed  a “Notice of Filing Defendant’s Pro Se Answer,” notifying the court below that Bayview was filing Opella and 21 NW 59th Street, Inc.’s pro se answer.  Attached to this notice was an undated letter that Opella purportedly sent to  Rosaler, Bayview’s attorney, offering to settle the parties’ dispute over the subject mortgage.  On these facts, we see no basis on which to conclude that Opella and 21 NW 59th Street,  Inc. either expressly or indirectly waived service of process or otherwise subjected themselves to the jurisdiction of the courts....
Second, the purported “answer” filed by Brian L. Rosaler, Bayview’s attorney, is nothing more than an undated letter to counsel for one of the litigants.  This document does not remotely resemble an answer which under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.100(c) must “have a caption containing the name of the court, the file number, the name of the first  party on each side with an appropriate indication of other parties, and a designation identifying the party filing it and its nature or the nature of the order, as the case may be.”  

As with the Opella case above, the Third District reversed a judgment based upon the failure to serve the defendant with the complaint.  The court stated:
The plaintiff’s attorneys, Golson Felberbaum Law Firm, hired Pro-Vest LLC, a process service company, to serve Ms. Bennett.  Christopher P. Mas, a Pro-Vest employee, filed a verified return of service on December 29, 2008.  The return indicated that individual service was accomplished on December  20 at 4:13 p.m.  The return further indicated that “DEFENDANT REFUSED TO DISCLOSE MILITARY STATUS; PROPERTY IS NOT A MOBILE HOME.  I  asked the person spoken to if the person served is married and I received a negative reply.”.....However, the front and reverse sides of the summons attached to the return were covered with the process server’s notes.  These notes reflected the server’s attempts to serve Ms. Bennett at her house to no avail....
Ms. Bennett never filed a responsive pleading in the case.  Christiana Bank filed motions for default and for summary judgment.  In May 2009, Christiana Bank obtained an order granting default and a final foreclosure judgment.  The sale was scheduled for September 4, 2009.   
On September 2, Ms. Bennett, through counsel, filed a motion to vacate the judgment and to stay the foreclosure sale.  The trial court denied the motion to stay the sale, but granted Ms. Bennett a hearing on the motion to vacate.....After the hearing, the court entered an order  finding that the service was “questionable,” but that there was no meritorious defense to the foreclosure.  The court denied the motion to vacate.
With regard to the law, the court stated:
A process server’s return which is regular on its face is presumed valid absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary....Moreover, a simple denial is insufficient to impeach the validity of service....However, in this case, Ms. Bennett raised more than her own sworn denial.  The process server’s own notes, an admission against the interest of his principal, see § 90.803(18)(d), Fla. Stat. (2009), prove the insufficiency of service.  The process server’s last entry reflects that he “Saw Curtains Move, Read Aloud Docs, SVP Docs at Door.” 
Christiana Bank argues that there is no testimony to explain what “SVP” means, but “Docs at Door” is quite self-explanatory.  Curtains may move because of the wind or curious cats, and not just because some prospective defendant is attempting to avoid service.  The pertinent statute is clear...The process server’s notes contain  no evidence of compliance with these requirements.  Rather, the notes squarely conflict with his attestation that Ms. Bennett herself refused to disclose a military status.  As to Ms. Bennett’s marital status, the process server stated: “I asked the person spoken to if the person served is married and I received a negative reply.”  That recitation avoided an identification of the “person spoken to” and again implies that “the person served” was personally handed the papers.  
Far more troubling is the fact that Christiana Bank and its attorneys ignored this discrepancy in the return of service.  In its motion for summary judgment Christiana Bank alleges that the “Defendant(s) were duly and regularly served with process.”  The Bank’s proposed Final Judgment of Foreclosure, prepared by its attorneys, stated: “Service of process having been duly and regularly obtained over DEBBIE BENNETT ....”
Once a defect in the return of service is shown, the burden of demonstrating regular service is on the party seeking to invoke the court’s jurisdiction....That burden was not met here.....Where no in personam jurisdiction is obtained over a defendant, the defendant is not required to demonstrate  a meritorious defense to set aside the default.....The trial court should not have required Ms. Bennett to demonstrate a meritorious defense to the action once it became clear that the summons and complaint were never properly served.


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