Don’t Shoot the Messenger — Learning about process servers
by Becky Bye
Recently, I acted as nurse to my fiancé following a minor surgery. One day, when he was resting from the surgery and I was working at the house, he received a call from an unknown Colorado phone number. When he picked it up, the voice on the other end calmly, but firmly said: "You have a process server…waiting…right outside of your door." He glanced up and repeated the information to me — my heart skipped a beat. A flurry of scenarios flashed through my mind as I tried to figure out why one of us would be served with papers and what the consequences were. After we exchanged worried expressions, he walked to the door and opened it. Standing before us, I saw a real process server, holding a big package.
Luckily, the package was a "get well" gift from Rufus’ employer, filled with sweets galore — which I enjoyed much more than I would have if the package had been a summons. The process server was Ronn Nixon, a longtime friend of his firm.
With relief and curiosity, I told Ronn how startled I was and asked him whether he received any extraordinary reactions from people who were getting served with real papers, not gift baskets. He explained that he indeed had many interesting stories. He also described his job and reiterated how crucial process servers are to the legal system. He further expressed surprise at how many attorneys (myself included) were unaware of the details of process serving, particularly because the fundamental purpose of process serving is to initiate and ensure the constitutional rights of those who have been named in court documents, thereby maintaining their "due process" rights.
Maybe it was my interest in hearing about real-life drama or this branch of our litigation system to which I had not been previously exposed, but I was intrigued, and I realized this would make a perfect Docket article. Ronn and I met again to discuss his background and stories. He explained that service of process is not as easy as it seems — usually it takes more than one, and often many, attempts to find the right person to serve and to properly serve them. Other servers have a "three attempts and out" policy, but Ronn thinks it is important to maintain his "unlimited attempts" policy to acquire jurisdiction on behalf of his clients.
Ronn entered into process serving as a favor for a friend. To his surprise, he enjoyed it and everything about it, including the adrenaline rush and the "great thrill of a job well done." He now enjoys business relationships with various clients — lawyers and law firms.
To do well as a process server, Ronn stresses that one must know C.R.C.P. Rule 4 (titled "Process") inside and out, in addition to other civil procedure rules. Most of his cases are relatively straightforward and the emotions are predictable, he said. Many people already know the process papers are coming, so they are relatively underwhelmed when he gets there. Others, surprisingly, are relieved when they get the document, perhaps because it symbolizes ending a tumultuous chapter in their life and beginning a new one that will end any issues they have.
But many people are in shock for the first 30 to 90 seconds, and Ronn takes that opportunity to get out of their way in case things take a turn for the worse. On two occasions, Ronn’s service of process almost became violent or troublesome. One time, in a collections case, Ronn attempted to serve the particular person when the individual’s family threw a huge party following his return from a hunting trip. Knowing that he "did not want to embarrass a man who had just smelled blood with a rifle," Ronn went to the front door of the house. The inchoate defendant came around the house and walked up behind Ronn. Visibly intoxicated, the man proceeded to charge at him like a linebacker. Anticipating the aggression, Ronn moved out of the way. The man struck the door frame with his full weight and collapsed on the floor, sobbing wildly from the resulting injury to his hand.
Another time, Ronn was hired to serve an affluent business person who had lied about his identity so as to avoid being served. Ronn proceeded to serve him, knowing that he was misrepresenting his identity. Later that night, Ronn came home and found that two police cars were in his own parking area waiting for him. Apparently, that person called the police and alleged that Ronn had broken into his home and tried to rob him. Ronn explained the situation and consequently, the police charged the recipient of that summons with filing a false report. Ronn was called to testify against him in that proceeding!
Potential violence or awkward situations aside, process serving has its perks too. Many recipients of papers acknowledge that he is often merely the bearer of bad news and express, to Ronn’s relief, "I won’t shoot the messenger." Once, as he attempted to serve an individual, he got pulled in to judge a culinary school contest in which the defendant was a competitor. Ronn ended up serving a variety of documents on the contestant as the monthly stages of the competition unfolded (another long, but interesting story). Through his work, Ronn has met many interesting people and served people in all types of places and situations.
The life of a process server is definitely not boring; the scenery constantly changes. Each day, many attorneys initiate new law suits and passively make their phone call to an assistant or their process server, and request to have the service done. Many do so without digesting exactly what adventures they request another to make, acknowledging the process server’s elemental purpose in litigation, or appreciating the inherent difficulties and even risks that the job of a process server entails.
Ronn Nixon teaches process server classes for intake volunteers at Colorado Legal Services. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions for the author? Contact Becky Bye at email@example.com.