Penalties for Avoiding Service of Process
No one enjoys being served with a lawsuit. When someone files a lawsuit against you, you might feel a variety of emotions. Some people become anxious or depressed. Others might respond with hostility toward the person who is suing them or serving them with papers. And others will react with denial and refuse to do anything after receiving notice of the lawsuit.
While state laws do not require most individuals to accept notice of lawsuits filed against them, there can be penalties and disadvantages for doing so. Knowing what these consequences of avoiding service are is helpful not just for individuals who might be facing a lawsuit but also for process servers who are faced with someone who is avoiding them.
How You Get Notified of Lawsuits
In every state, if you are named as a defendant or respondent in a lawsuit, you will almost invariably find this out when you are served with process. “Process” is nothing more than notification that you are being sued, and it usually consists of a copy of the lawsuit itself along with a notice from the court describing how you can respond to the suit. Being served by a professional process server who hand-delivers these papers to you is a common method of service, although it is not the only method.
What a Process Server Can and Cannot Do
If the person bringing the lawsuit against you uses a process server, there are some limitations on where that process server can serve you with papers and how they may go about it. Most significantly, a process server cannot enter into your home or force themselves onto your property. They may, however, use a sidewalk and approach your front door if that pathway is open to the public.
Beyond this, a process server cannot break the law in order to serve you papers. They cannot break and enter into your vehicle or your home. Nor can a process server trespass on your private property after being told to leave. Finally, they cannot commit a battery against you or engage in disorderly conduct. Process servers who break the law can be charged with a crime and punished for doing so.
Avoiding Service versus Resisting Service: A Crucial Distinction
Although the two terms are similar, avoiding being served with notice of a lawsuit is not the same as resisting or opposing someone who is trying to serve you with legal process. One is legal, while the other is illegal and can result in criminal liability.
What is Avoiding Service of Process?
With very few exceptions, no state in the United States requires individuals to accept notification of a lawsuit. This means that you can legally:
Not answer your door if a process server is attempting to get your attention at home
Decline to roll down your window and speak with the process server if you are in your car
Fail to return phone calls from the process server
Refuse to accept papers that a process server offers to you
Not speak to the process server at all
These and other actions that are designed to make it difficult for the process server to find you and give you notice are all examples of avoiding service of process. While these efforts may be annoying or aggravating to the process server, they are not illegal for you and others to do. Moreover, a process server is not entitled to break the law or do any other prohibited act just because someone is attempting to avoid service.
What is Resisting a Process Server?
While a person does not have to accept service, they cannot actively resist or oppose someone who is trying to serve them. For instance, if you are approached by a process server in a public place, you cannot punch that process server, take the papers and hit them with it, or threaten them with bodily harm. In short, just as a process server cannot break the law in trying to serve you, you cannot respond to a process server by breaking the law yourself.
It is a crime throughout the United States to resist, obstruct, or oppose a person who is lawfully trying to serve you papers. The severity of this crime will depend on the type of case for which you are being served. In some cases, resisting a process server can be considered a felony and result in a prison sentence or hefty fine.
The key distinction between avoiding a process server and resisting them has to do with your actions. Ignoring or refusing to engage with a process server is not a crime. Actively and physically interfering with them as they try to do their job is illegal and can result in criminal sanctions.
Other Penalties for Avoiding Service of Process
Even if you do not physically oppose a process server, there are still consequences for avoiding service of process. After attempting to serve you several times, the process server may try to serve you in another manner by either leaving the paperwork at your home with an adult resident or delivering it to you via certified mail. The options available to the process server may vary slightly from state to state.
After either serving you in some other way or after multiple unsuccessful attempts to serve you, the process server will file their return with the court and inform the court of your refusal to accept service. At this point, the court will likely allow the lawsuit against you to proceed and may enter a default judgment against you. A default judgment awards the other party the relief they asked for in their lawsuit without affording you an opportunity to contest or challenge the lawsuit.
It is Rarely Advantageous to Avoid Being Served
Although you have the legal right to avoid being served, a tenacious and professional legal process server will still attempt to do so while staying within the confines of the law. While you can persist in avoiding being served, there are downsides to this approach. It is important to remember, though, that while you can avoid being served, you cannot resist or oppose the process server themselves.