Recently, I saw a story that ran on a KEYE-TV (ch. 42, in Austin) newscast about a bill that has been proposed in the Texas legislature by Representative Jeff Leach (R) from Plano. That bill, HB 1989, is proposing to allow people to be served subpoenas through social media. When I first saw KEYE’s story, I must admit I thought this proposal was one of the worst ideas to be proposed in our Texas Legislature in recent memory.
Opponents of the concept argue that most people (myself included) miss posts and messages sent through social media all the time, there’s no way to confirm receipt by the actual person, and it is hard to confirm that a particular account is actually created, monitored and maintained by the particular individual sought to be served. They also say that serving someone in this manner is inappropriate because it would make the fact that the individual was being sued more public than it should be. While it is true that most court cases are public record, they are passively so–one has to go to the courthouse or to an online site to specifically look for the case. It is not like when someone files a lawsuit, it makes the front page of the paper, except in rare high-profile cases of public interest, and most lawsuits don’t fit that category.
But after reading the article on KEYE’s website (http://www.keyetv.com/news/features/top-stories/stories/texas-bill-would-allow-serving-subpoenas-through-social-media-7193.shtml?wap=0) and reviewing the actual text of the bill (http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/83R/billtext/html/HB01989I.htm), I realized it was not emphasized in the story that the same base criteria that have been in place for “substituted service” or alternative service plus additional safeguards/restrictions applicable only to social media under this bill, would be applied to these situations. Currently, under Rule 106 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, which has been in place over 70 years,
(a) Unless the citation or an order of the court otherwise directs, the citation shall be served by any person authorized by Rule 103 by
(1) delivering to the defendant, in person, a true copy of the citation with the date of delivery endorsed thereon with a copy of the petition attached thereto, or
(2) mailing to the defendant by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested, a true copy of the citation with a copy of the petition attached thereto.
(b) Upon motion supported by affidavit stating the location of the defendant’s usual place of business or usual place of abode or other place where the defendant can probably be found and stating specifically the facts showing that service has been attempted under either (a)(1) or (a)(2) at the location named in such affidavit but has not been successful, the court may authorize service
(1) by leaving a true copy of the citation, with a copy of the petition attached, with anyone over sixteen years of age at the location specified in such affidavit, or
(2) in any other manner that the affidavit or other evidence before the court shows will be reasonably effective to give the defendant notice of the suit
Citation by publication, or serving someone through a newspaper or other published media, has also been provided for in our court procedural rules for over 70 years, and it provides,
When a party to a suit, his agent or attorney, shall make oath that the residence of any party defendant is unknown to affiant, and to such party when the affidavit is made by his agent or attorney, or that such defendant is a transient person, and that after due diligence such party and the affiant have been unable to locate the whereabouts of such defendant, or that such defendant is absent from or is a nonresident of the State, and that the party applying for the citation has attempted to obtain personal service of nonresident notice as provided for in Rule 108, but has been unable to do so, the clerk shall issue citation for such defendant for service by publication.
It is not being proposed that social media be allowed as the primary or first option for serving someone, only when under the rules that already exist here in Texas (and similarly in most states and under Federal court rules also) it would be okay to serve someone by a substitute or alternate method to personal service by a constable or authorized private process server. If a litigant can show a court that service in person or by certified mail as authorized has been unsuccessful and can show that the criteria for obtaining substitute service or citation by publication have been met, under under the procedural rules the court may allow service by such alternate means.
In addition, as described in HB1989, additional procedures and safeguards must be followed.
If substituted service of citation is authorized under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the court may prescribe as a method of service under those rules an electronic communication sent to the defendant through a social media website if the court finds that:
(1) the defendant maintains a social media page on that website;
(2) the profile on the social media page is the profile of the defendant;
(3) the defendant regularly accesses the social media page account; and
(4) the defendant could reasonably be expected to receive actual notice if the electronic communication were sent to the defendant’s account.
Bradley Shear, a Washington DC area social media lawyer, stated in an ABC News story last year, “Authentication [of the social media user who is sought to be served through such social media] is a major issue since you must be sure that the person with whom you are trying to serve online is the same person offline. You don’t want to have someone’s due process rights infringed upon due to not being properly notified.” This principle is addressed by the first two criteria, as long as the courts hold the attorneys and litigants hoping to use this method to strict and high burden of proof to show that the online person is actually the same person in “real life” who is sought to be served..
So, given the advancement of technology, and the reality that it is possible that it could even be MORE likely in some situations that someone might see the subpoena or other legal process if served through the social media source than by some other means currently becoming less used (i.e., newspaper), if implemented right, I believe that service of process through social media could actually be a better and more appropriate method than certain currently allowed alternative methods.
Service by social media has been allowed in New York, Minnessota, Nevada (Federal appeals court – 9th Circuit), Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and other jurisdictions are being added all the time.
We will have to wait and see if the Texas Legislature passes HB 1989 to know whether service through social media officially becomes a permissible means to serve someone in a case.