On an otherwise normal day, a stranger hands you a stack of papers and walks away. Somewhat confused, you open the envelope and see that you have been served. You have never been in court before and you’re not sure what the papers you have been handed mean and what exactly you are supposed to do, if anything, in response.
The answer, of course, depends. You have most likely either been served with a subpoena or a summons. Your rights and obligations differ depending on which one you’ve been served with, but in either circumstance, you cannot ignore it without taking a substantial risk.
For purposes of this article, we will discuss service of a summons. We will explore how to properly respond to a subpoena in a subsequent post.
Service of Process
Before a court has the power to make decisions about you, your freedom, and your property, it must have both subject-matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction. Subject-matter jurisdiction refers to a court’s power over the subject matter of the complaint. For example, disputes involving state statutes with parties in Clark county in an amount of over $15,000 is subject to the jurisdiction of Nevada’s Eighth Judicial District Court. Disputes between parties living in different states in an amount of over $75,000 are generally subject to the jurisdiction of the federal courts. These are just two examples of many.
Personal jurisdiction is a court’s power to make decisions affecting a person or business entity.
For a court to have subject-matter jurisdiction, the subject of the complaint must fit within the parameters of the power granted to the court. For a court to have personal jurisdiction, the defendant must either consent to it or be properly served with the summons and the complaint.
Personally delivering a summons and complaint to a defendant is what is known as service of process. Service of process is an important part of the judicial process and is governed by the rules of civil procedure.
Rule Four of the Nevada and Federal Rules of civil Procedure sets forth the requirements for serving a summons and a complaint. Although an in-depth analysis of the rules is beyond the scope of this article, generally the following conditions must be met for service of process to be effective:
- The complaint and summons must be served together;
- They must be served by a nonparty who is at least 18 years of age;
- They must be served personally upon the defendant or upon someone of suitable age and discretion at the defendant’s home;
- They must contain certain statutory notices of the defendant’s rights; and
- They must be served within 120 days after the complaint is filed.
If you have been served, you must respond to the allegations within the complaint by filing an answer within 20 (Nevada) or 21 (federal) days of the date service was effectuated. If you do not, the court can assume you do not object to the charges and enter a judgment against you (there are procedures a plaintiff must follow to get a default judgment, most of which require notice to you). If a court does this, it becomes very difficult to undo the judgment and actually present a defense. It is always easier to rebut the charges now than to argue to the court that you should be given a second chance.
Sometimes you may know that someone is trying to serve you with process and be tempted to try and avoid process, thinking that if you can evade service, you will never have to respond to the allegations. Evading service is usually a bad idea. If the plaintiff is unable to serve you, there are other ways a court can get personal jurisdiction, like by publication of a notice that you’ve been sued in a local paper or in some cases by serving papers upon the Nevada DMV. If this occurs, you may never know that the court has obtained jurisdiction over you until it is too late.
If you have been served with process, you should never ignore it. You should immediately contact an attorney. Because you have only about three weeks to respond before your rights may be abridged, speak to an attorney sooner rather than later. In some cases, an attorney may be able to get your case dismissed right away, while in others, litigation may take much longer. In either case, your interests are best served if you have someone in your corner who understands the laws and can make sure your rights are protected.
Zachariah B. Parry is an attorney and founding partner at the law firm Parry & Pfau and is an adjunct professor who teaches torts, contracts, and Nevada practice and procedure for UNLV’s paralegal program. He can be reached at 702-912-4451 or firstname.lastname@example.org.