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Monday, August 24, 2009

CHANGE! - Is the Process Serving Profession doing enough to remain relevant?

Change – what is it and what does it mean?

If you Google “change” you will find dozens of definitions… for the purposes of this discussion, the change I am referring to could also be referred to as “shift” or “shift happens” or maybe even more accurately “shift is happening all around us”.

The change and shift that is happening all around us is difficult to measure as it is in constant movement and is even more difficult to stay ahead of. Whether we like it or not, change and shift does not care what we think. Change does not care what we believe; it does care if we would like things to stay the same in order to preserve the integrity of our profession. I have heard some say that the best we can do is acknowledge that the world is changing and attempt to manage how that change might affect the future of our profession. I believe we can do better; I believe we must embrace change if we hope to be successful.

Over the last five years or so, I have participated on a few panel discussions about what is happening in the courts, with a focus on how eFiling and eService and how it is effecting the process serving profession. During the first of these panel discussions five years ago I presented some information about the RIO case. That case for those of you who are not familiar with it was one of the first Appellate Court cases that allowed a Summons and Complaint to be served electronically. Since then there have been several cases that have cited RIO and that have allowed for e-service under similar circumstances. My point is what might not seem like a big deal might actually end up being the catalyst for more dramatic change or the shift in the laws and practices that effect the service of process.

Ten years ago, who would have predicted that there would be process serving agencies today that operate almost every aspect of their business electronically? No physical paper is picked up by or received by the process serving agency. Where all assignments are placed online, received online and dispatched electronically all without touching a single sheet of paper. All proofs of service, all status reports and all invoices are sent to the customers electronically. No paper at all. Yes they still need to serve a paper document. Sound far fetched? It is already happening.

Process Servers customers are eFiling in jurisdictions all over the country. In some cases those customers are not generating paper at all. They are either signing the electronic document digitally or not at all…

My point is the adoption of technology is effecting how law firms interact with the courts, opposing counsel, their customers and their vendors. Technology is also enabling process serving companies some of the same advantages. One might argue that a logical extension of the use of technology is that electronic service of process might become more and more prevalent. Mind you it has not become common; it is the exception rather than the rule. But make no mistake, that change is coming. I am not suggesting process servers role over and let change happen to them. On the contrary I am pointing out that process servers have the power to decide if we want to be part of the solution and effect change that helps protect the integrity of the profession. I am suggesting that process servers must protect a key element of due process by insisting that no matter what change or shift happens the concept of a disinterested third party that can attest to the facts related to the service of process is vital and necessary to insure that parties’ rights are protected and preserved.

If you doubt for a moment that the private process serving profession will not face the threat of process being served electronically on a scale that we may not be able to imagine, I invite you visit the following link to a video clip and then ask yourself if it is possible.

I believe that process servers will see this threat realized other countries first, like India, China, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. It has already happened in New Zealand and Australia earlier this year. In both countries, courts have allowed instances of service of process electronically to a defendant’s Facebook account.

On the home front all it would take to get the ball rolling is an amendment to Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Such an amendment has been suggested by some that believe it is a simple as adding the following language to Rule 4(e) (3).

The following section was reprinted from an article written by Jeremy Colby, Esq a partner at the New York firm Webster Szanyi LLP in 2006:

By adding the following language to Rule 4(e) (3)

"by delivering a copy of the summons and of the complaint to the individual via

electronic means such as electronic mail or facsimile where directed by the court.”

That coupled with a corresponding amendment to Rule 4(h) (1) as follows:

“in a judicial district of the United States in the manner prescribed for individuals by subdivisions (e) (1) or (e) (3), or by delivering a copy of the summons and complaint . . . .”

Amending Rule 4(e) and Rule 4(h)(1) in this manner would permit e-SOP upon individuals and corporate entities inside the United States in the same manner that is currently allowed under Rule 4(f)(3) for service outside the United States and for actions pending in the federal courts.

Such an amendment could lead to a disruption to the traditional manners of effecting service of process not just in the federal courts but in the state courts that follow the federal rules.

Mr. Colby’s article is the most comprehensive I have seen on the topic of electronic service of process and is a must read if you want to understand the history of electronic service of process and want to have a glimpse of what the future might hold if the profession does not embrace change and make it work for them. If you would like a copy of his article please send me an email requesting same and I will forward it to you.

What does ALL this mean? What are process servers supposed to do? What is their vision for the future? How will they remain relevant? What can NAPPS or other professional process serving organizations do to protect, promote and preserve the private process serving profession?

I challenge you to start asking yourself, the NAPPS leadership and the leadership of your state association these important questions. Together through a collaborative effort utilizing the collective skills and resources I believe process servers can start to formulate a thoughtful and proactive approach to address these challenges. I believe in order to effect change you must EMBRACE CHANGE.