Service of Process by Facebook? Not Just Yet!

Back in 2009 (yes, 2009), Legal Bytes reported that the British High Court agreed to allow the service of a court order to an individual through Twitter (see, British High Court is for the Birds? Actually, for Twitter!). In that same article, we noted an Australian Supreme Court Judge allowed service of legal papers through Facebook. Increasingly, U.S. courts are confronting similar questions.

New York law, for example, has an enumerated set of mechanisms by which one can effect service of process. But the law also notes that if the enumerated methods are impracticable, service can be made “in such manner as the court, upon motion without notice, directs." In other words, if you are trying to sue someone in New York and none of the traditional methods works, you can petition the court and request some other method, and, assuming the court agrees, that will be effective to constitute service of process. But the standards remain high for the use of social media and other technology-enabled mechanisms. Witness the recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, in Fortunato v. Chase Bank USA (11 Civ. 6608), which in June of last year, denied the bank’s petition to allow service of process using Facebook.

The case started when Lorri J. Fortunato (Lorri) sued Chase, alleging that another person fraudulently opened a Chase credit card account in her name and incurred debts without her knowledge or authorization. When the debt went unpaid, Chase initiated collection proceedings against Lorri. In 2009, Chase obtained a default judgment and in 2010 began proceedings to garnish her wages – a process by which Chase eventually collected the full amount of the default judgment. But Lorri claimed she never lived at the address at which Chase attempted to serve her notice of the action and, during the course of the lawsuit, Chase discovered that Nicole Fortunato (Nicole), the plaintiff’s estranged daughter, had opened the account in her mother's name, listed her address in the account application, and made the charges – the amount Chase ultimately received from garnishing Lorri’s wages.

Chase requested, and was granted permission, to bring Nicole into the case as a third-party defendant, but despite hiring an investigator to locate her, Chase was unable to determine exactly where Nicole lived. The investigator did, however, find a Facebook profile that was believed to be hers, and so Chase petitioned the court to allow it to effect service of process on Nicole in a number of ways, among which were service through Facebook and a message to the email address listed on the profile page.

Although the court did conclude that Nicole’s pattern of "providing fictional or out of date addresses” made service of process upon Nicole using traditional methods impracticable, the court went on to reason that Chase had not been able to assert "any facts" that could substantiate, among other things, that the Facebook profile was actually that of the Nicole Fortunato in this particular case. The court noted anyone can create "a Facebook profile using real, fake, or incomplete information," so how could they be sure it was the person they intended to serve! Feel free to read the Court’s Memorandum Opinion & Order (PDF) yourself.

The lesson from this and other cases so far: Whatever method of service of process is requested, one must be able to substantiate, with some degree of certainty, that the person intended to be served is likely to receive the summons and complaint and, thus, be apprised of the pendency of legal proceedings involving that person. Social media and technology, wired and wireless, is turning the legal world upside down. If you want to remain upright or need to know more, feel free to contact me, Joseph I. Rosenbaum, or any of the attorneys at Reed Smith with whom you regularly work.

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