Actual Knowledge Won’t Cure Defective Service of Process

Michele Trausch 
Michele Trausch
February 21, 2014

Homeward designated CT Corp. System as its agent for service of process. Ramos filed suit against Homeward and sent his process server to Homeward’s Irvine branch office. The process server asked for the person in charge, handed her the summons and complaint–despite her statement that she was not authorized to accept service–and then mailed a copy to the Irvine office addressed only to Homeward, as he had not obtained the woman’s name.

Ramos’ attorney sent faxes to Homeward’s legal department telling them he had filed suit; they told him to send the summons and complaint to their registered agent, CT.

Ramos’ attorney ignored this advice, obtained a default judgment against Homeward, and levied on its bank account for $254,155.

Homeward moved to set aside the default some 18 months after suit was filed, contending that it learned of the default and complaint only after its bank account was levied upon.

The trial court set aside the default and ordered the funds returned; Ramos appealed; the 4th Appellate District affirmed the setting aside of the default judgment.

 

There are several ways to serve a California corporation but it must be done correctly: (1) service on a designated agent for service of process [CC{ 416.10(a)]; (2) personal delivery to specific corporate officers, managers or employees identified in CCP 416.10(b); or (3) service to someone in charge of the office of one of the individuals identified in 416.10(b) and then mailing a copy to the individual [CCP 415.20].

 

Here, 415.20 did not apply because the proof of service failed to identify the person who was handed the summons and complaint. Because of this, the Court found that, on its face, the proof of service, and thus the judgment, were void for lack of proper service.

 

Ramos argued that Homeward had actual knowledge. But the Court held that mere receipt of the summons by an unknown employee who is not a person specified in 416.10 does not establish substantial compliance with the statute. The evidence presented at the set-aside motion was that no officers or managers were located in the Irvine office and no employee there was authorized to receive process.

 

Lessons learned? While it is easy to rely on your capable assistant to handle service of process, it is your job to know and understand the rules and intricacies of proper service. The best approach is to locate the agent for service of process on the Secretary of State webpage (for corporations and LLCs).

A little leg work and proper directions to your assistant and the process server can eliminate a lot of grief!