In August, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) used popular social media platform Twitter to serve a lawsuit against WikiLeaks. In addition to acting as a source of news, a marketing platform, a place to share images of your aesthetically appealing lunch, as well as a home for late-night political statements, Twitter has now become (on rare occasion) an acceptable means for serving an opposing party with a lawsuit.
What is “Service of a Lawsuit”?
Service of a lawsuit simply means the process of notifying someone who is being sued that they are being sued. In New York, Rule 308 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules governs service of a summons and complaint on the opposing party.
The idea behind requiring service upon an opposing party is to provide notice so that they can appear and defend themselves. Additionally, service notifies the court that the opposing party is aware of the legal action taken against them. This is a prerequisite to obtaining a final judgment.
How can a Lawsuit be Served upon an Opposing Party?
As mentioned earlier, in New York, Rule 308 provides several different methods of service. Some examples are:
- Personal delivery of the documents to the adversary.
- Personal delivery to an individual at the adversary’s last known residence AND mailing a copy as well to that address.
- Personal delivery to the adversary’s legal agent.
- By affixing a copy of the documents to the door of the last known residence or place of business AND by mailing a copy of same to that address. This method can only be utilized if attempts at using the first two methods are unsuccessful.
- In such manner as the court may direct if service under methods 1-4 are impracticable.
In the federal court system, service is governed by Rule 4 of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure. Rule 4 lays out the methods by which service can be effectuated:
- Personal delivery of the documents to the adversary.
- Leaving a copy of the summons at the adversary’s home AND mailing a copy of same to that address.
- Delivering a copy to each person authorized to receive service for the defendant
Before allowing a creative form of service, a judge will usually require a party to exhaust all other service methods.
DNC Serves WikiLeaks via Twitter
For the DNC, service via ordinary means would have been no easy task. How could the DNC personally serve papers on an organization that prides itself on anonymity and a decentralized global presence? The lawyers for the DNC therefore had a compelling argument that the normal methods of service were impractical. Thus, the lawyers had to develop a creative method of providing “notice” of the lawsuit to WikiLeaks.
The DNC argued that serving WikiLeaks via Twitter was appropriate because WikiLeaks frequently Tweets. Thus, it can be understood that WikiLeaks regularly uses and checks their Twitter account. Further, the DNC argued that service via Twitter was permitted in a prior lawsuit – a 2016 case in California.
The service of the lawsuit came in the form of a single Tweet from the law firm representing the DNC.
@wikileaks By Court order, you are being served with the following legal documents: https://t.co/ICg8qWnsUy, https://t.co/ZP2tTPJ4pb, https://t.co/RKue30s4hM, https://t.co/q5g0G1rQpQ.
All of these documents may be found here: https://t.co/NOCgvQhh2j.
— Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll Process Server (@ProcessServiceC) August 10, 2018
The Court found that this single social media message is an appropriate form of notice of a legal action.
Though it may seem odd that a judge in a court of law would permit use of a social media platform in order to deliver correspondence in a lawsuit pending before the court, there have been other instances of service via social media in recent years.
Other Examples of Service via Social Media
As mentioned above, there is a 2016 case from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California in which the judge permitted service via Twitter. In that case, the plaintiff was attempting to serve a man living in Kuwait who could not be located. Due to the fact that the man had resisted all conventional forms of service and because the man had a large, active Twitter account and following, the judge gave the plaintiff permission to serve the Kuwaiti man via Twitter.
In 2014, a judge allowed a man to serve his ex-wife over Facebook. The man’s ex-wife had successfully evaded all conventional attempts at service. The ex-wife operated an active Facebook account. Due to the level of activity, the family court judge ruled that it would be appropriate to serve the lawsuit over Facebook.
In later 2017, a Canadian judge allowed a defendant to be served via Instagram private message and LinkedIn. The defendant in that case was unable to be reached at his physical address or email address. The plaintiff’s lawyer in that case used her social media sleuth skills to find the defendants profiles online on Instagram and LinkedIn and successfully served the plaintiff through those platforms.
In the United Kingdom, service via social media platforms has become much more commonplace than it is in the United States. As far back as 2011, lawyers in Britain were permitted to serve a summons using social media platforms like Facebook. As far back as 2009, a court in Britain allowed an injunction to be served to a defendant via Twitter.
What does this Mean for You?
The consequences of these expanded forms of service are two-fold. As the world becomes more and more connected with the pervasiveness of the internet and the interconnectivity facilitated by social media, it is becoming harder and harder to avoid service of a lawsuit. No longer can one dodge a lawsuit by not providing a current mailing address or by not checking your mail. Courts are becoming wise to the prevalence of social media (as well as technology generally) and are using that to better promote the administration of justice.
Disclaimer: This blog is made available by Kloss, Stenger & LoTempio for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice nor form any attorney client relationship between the reader and Kloss, Stenger & LoTempio. You should always seek professional advice from a licensed attorney for any legal questions you may have.