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Does a Lawsuit End If the Defendant Can't Be Served?

Remember Seth Rogen's character in Pineapple Express? No, he wasn't a butler -- he was a process server, an obscure yet essential part of the legal system tasked with delivering the bad news of a lawsuit to the person being sued. After all, if people don't know they're being haled into court, it's kind of hard to defend themselves.

Because service of process is the necessary first step to a lawsuit, many think if they can just avoid the process server for long enough, they can't be sued (hence Rogen's disguises). But is that true?

Fruitless Searching

The issue has come to the forefront of the news after Montana real estate agent Tanya Gersh sued the owner of the racist website Daily Stormer, claiming he unleashed a "tsunami of threats" against her and her family. Gersh is being represented by attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center, who have thus far been unable to locate and serve Andrew Anglin with the suit.

The process servers hired by the SPLC have made a grand total of 15 visits to seven addresses linked to Anglin, including four different Ohio addresses, but couldn't find him. "One process server said she believes Anglin barricaded himself inside one of the addresses," according to Ars Technica. In addition, attempts to serve Anglin via certified mail were all returned as undeliverable. Until he is properly served, the lawsuit against Anglin can't proceed.

Constructive Notice

But there's another twist to that -- service by publication. If a plaintiff can show the court that no other method of service has been effective, they can publish a notice in a newspaper. So long as the newspaper is in general circulation where the defendant is likely to be found or where the court is located and is published on more than one occasion (like weekly for three weeks), the court will consider the defendant served, whether he or she actually reads the notice or not. Gersh's attorneys have allegedly begun this more cumbersome and expensive procedure already.

The perhaps not-so-funny part about the efforts to serve Anglin in this case is that he is plainly aware of the lawsuit. Soon after the lawsuit was filed in April, he published a post on Daily Stormer entitled, "SPLC is Suing Anglin! Donate Now to STOP THESE K***S!" He retained Las Vegas attorney Marc Randazza, who told the AP, "Everybody deserves to have their constitutional rights defended." Randazza also addressed the service problems and accusations that he had ignored calls and emails from SPLC attorneys asking him to accept service on behalf of his client, albeit rather obliquely. "Would you say that touchdowns are avoiding being scored in a shutout football game?" he rhetorically asked the New York Times. "Or would you say that the offense is not scoring them?"

A defendant has no legal obligation to assist the plaintiff in a lawsuit, including making themselves available for service. Fortunately for plaintiffs, hiding from a lawsuit they clearly know exists won't help a defendant avoid being held accountable in court.

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