Calls from defendants who were never properly "served," or given delivery of a notice of legal proceedings, are growing. Every week we hear from folks who were unaware of a case opened against them and who also, unbeknownst to them, lost the case by default. These default judgments have become commonplace during the pandemic. One main reason has to do with alterations that the postal service made to their procedures.
Given postal workers' high risk for COVID exposure the traditional "service of process" was altered. These documents are historically delivered via registered mail and require the recipient's signature. But during the ongoing pandemic, letter carriers have been permitted to simply note recipients' initials and consider the letter or package signed for. This is a surefire way for important legal notices to never reach their intended destination. And some courts have adopted or approved of this procedure for the time being.
Service of process is key to fair and just proceedings. And this loosening of requirements means that many defendants were never served a notice or otherwise made aware of a proceeding against them. Because they weren't aware, they didn't acknowledge the situation or show up to a hearing, whether held virtually or in person. And of course they couldn't defend the charges or offer opposing evidence, so the court rendered a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff.
Normally, the threat of a default judgment can help to either encourage involvement or deter unnecessary litigation. The default decision rendered is essentially a court-sanctioned punishment. But in this case, the defendant didn't have a chance, and there's no lesson learned. What recourse does an uninformed defendant have?
Service of process is a right, and if a defendant was not made aware of the proceeding against them it is entirely appropriate to file a motion to vacate the default judgment. The individual should then feel free to proceed with their defense. That could include everything from contesting jurisdiction to debating the merits of the case.
At Calkins Law Firm we regret these unfortunate circumstances that so many find themselves in right now. Of course the situation that led courts and the postal service down this path was pretty dismal too. But we're hopeful that an end is in sight, and that relief is on the way. In the meantime we're still receiving weekly calls from distraught defendants. For these individuals the matter is urgent and they need help now. Our team has experience representing these types of cases and would be happy to both look into your situation and discuss the best course of action. Reach out today!