All civil lawsuits in Florida begin the same way: with the filing of a Complaint, and that Complaint getting “served” on the defendant. Most people understand generally that you have to get served with papers before being obligated to respond to a court case, but how do you know if you have actually been properly served?
The simple act of finding out that you've been sued does not mean you've been served. Florida law specifies what is required to serve someone, and the text can be found in Chapter 48 of the Florida Statutes. There are 2 methods of serving a lawsuit in the state of Florida: personal service, or substitute service. An official process server or a law enforcement officer must generally be the one to provide you with the paperwork.
What does the Florida Law say about what is required to serve someone?
Florida Statute §48.031(1)(a) states that “Service of original process is made by delivering a copy of it to the person to be served with a copy of the complaint, petition, or other initial pleading or paper or by leaving the copies at his or her usual place of abode with any person residing therein who is 15 years of age or older and informing the person of their contents.”
But what does that mean? Can you give an example?
Broken down in plain English, this means that the Complaint filed against you must be either personally delivered to you, or it can be left at your house by having it delivered to someone who lives in the home with you and was informed of what the documents were. If an official gave you the documents and explained what it was, you have been validly served with the lawsuit. But as mentioned, the law also allows for the people who live you to be provided the documents if you are not available. For example, if your name was Dale Defendant, and while you were out of the house at work, a deputy sheriff came and delivered the documents to your spouse, or to your child who was at least 15 years old, and the sheriff explained that “This is a Summons for a lawsuit against Dale Defendant, they have been sued in civil lawsuit and need to review these papers and respond accordingly,” that would be proper substitute service. This is called “substitute service” because someone else was stood in to accept the documents on your behalf. However, it is important to remember that the person who receives these documents must actually: 1) live with you; 2) be at least 15 years old; and 3) have been informed about the contents of the documents being served/delivered (they have to be told it is important lawsuit paperwork).
I came home and found some lawsuit papers at my door, but no-one delivered them to me or anyone who lives with me. Have I been served?
Sometimes, a process server who has been trying to serve you is unable to locate you or anyone you live with at the time of day they come by. To try and get your attention, they might try to leave you a note informing you of their attempts to reach you. Some Florida citizens have even reported that the lawsuit was left on their doorstep. In these situations, have you been properly served? The answer is NO. Because a process server has not personally delivered the documents to either you or someone properly identified as living with you, and explained what the documents are, you have not been properly served. Sometimes people worry that one of the documents (the Summons) appears to be a command to respond to a Complaint by filing an Answer, or by appearing at an initial court hearing. Understandably, this can be frightening or stressful, but it is important to remember that being properly served is an important, constitutionally required part of the process for any civil lawsuit, and if you have not yet been served, you are not under an obligation to respond.
I have not been properly served yet. Can I still hire an attorney?
Yes! It is generally a good idea not to ignore the warning signs of a lawsuit and to hire an attorney to represent you, to protect your best interests. Even if you haven't been formally served yet, but you have discovered that a lawsuit has been filed against you, you can hire an attorney to defend you in the case, without waiving the requirement that you be served. Don't let an issue get out of hand, and level the playing field! The person suing you likely has an attorney helping them file the lawsuit, so it is best to have one representing you to address all legal issues in your case.
I'm still not sure if I've been served in the lawsuit. Is there anywhere I can check my status?
Yes, there is. Florida has a very broad public records law, commonly called “The Sunshine Law,” which is designed to bring all records of public proceedings “out into the sunshine” and not keep them hidden from public view. Thus, most court records are available online for your review as a member of the public. You do not have to be an attorney to check these records. Using the website for the county clerk of records for where you live, you can generally find links to review court cases for your county online. Simply run a search on your legal name to see what comes up, or type in your case number if you know it. If you access the docket or documents page for most Clerk websites, you can find out if anything has been filed showing proof of service.
The court docket says I've been served, but I don't believe I was served. What should I do?
As discussed above, the best thing to do is hire an attorney that help you navigate the legal landscape. If there are grounds for challenging the service of process in your case, an attorney can help you identify them and use this as a negotiating tool to help resolve your matter.
Don't hesitate to contact the Holland Law Group today for all your debt defense needs! We service the entire state of Florida from Miami, Orlando, Sarasota, Tampa, and all places in between, and we can help you make sense of whether you've been served and what to do next!