Saturday, May 19, 2007

Brown v. American Institutes for Research, (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Approved for Publication)

Opinion Issued May 17, 2007--Opinion by Judge Roger W. Titus. (Approved for publication.)

The first paragraph of the Court's opinion establishes its theme:
This case exemplifies the old adage that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." The Plaintiff is the horse of this story, and the water that she was led to, but would not drink, was effective service of process. In spite of repeated opportunities provided to the Plaintiff to effect valid service of process, she simply would not drink the water. However, valid service of process is essential to the concept of due process, and when it has not been effected, the due processes of the law cannot even begin. The details of this sad story follow.
The plaintiff first attempted to serve process on the corporation by serving an individual who was not an officer of the corporation. The name of the defendant as set forth in the complaint was also incorrect. Furthermore, the plaintiff used certified mail to make this first attempt, but failed to check the box on the return receipt requesting restricted delivery.

The defendant responded with a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 12(b)(5) for failure to effect proper service. Attached to the motion was a printout from the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation showing the correct name of the defendant and the name and address of the resident agent.

After the initial motion to dismiss was filed, the plaintiff made two additional attempts to effect service, one by certified mail to the same individual that the first attempt was made to, but at a different address, and another via private process server to the residence of a vice-president of the defendant. This time, the certified mail was signed for by an individual who was not authorized to accept service and the delivery by private process server was made only to the residence of the vice-president, not upon her personally. Oddly, the plaintiff's counsel again asserted that, after checking with appropriate authorities in Maryland and the District of Columbia, he could not identify a resident agent for the defendant even though this information had been provided in the motion to dismiss previously filed by the defendant.

After reviewing both the federal rules and the pertinent Maryland rules regarding service of process, the Court granted the defendant's motion. It allowed the plaintiff until May 30, 2007, to properly effect service and, sua sponte, amended the complaint to reflect the correct name of the defendant. In its opinion, the Court quoted at length the late Chief Judge of the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland from the opinion in Colonial Carpets, Inc. v. Carpet Fair, Inc., 36 Md. App. 583, 374 A.2d 419, 420-21 (1977):
[P]rocedural rules are "the lawyer's compass and serve to help him steer through the narrows of pleading, pass the rocks of default, around the shoals of limitation, and safely into the harbor of judgment. It is a reckless sailor, indeed, who puts to sea without a compass, and it is a reckless lawyer who fails to familiarize himself with" the applicable procedural rules before filing and trying a case. [Chief Judge Gilbert] went on to lament that notwithstanding the importuning of appellate courts that the "rules of procedure are not to be considered as mere guides or Heloise's helpful hints to the practice of law, but rather precise rubrics that are to be read and followed, admonitions go unheeded by some practitioners. When that occurs, we are left to wonder whether we are engaged in an endless struggle, just as waves beat upon the shore, fall back and then repeat over and over ad infinitum."
Id. at 584-85, 374 A.2d at 421.

A copy of the opinion is available in PDF, as is a copy of the order.

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