Facebook, with more than 100 million users, provides a way for friends and family to keep in touch with one another. So, it’s only a matter of time before Facebook accounts became tools for U.S. lawyers to tell users that they’re being served.
It’s already a reality in Australia, where a court recently allowed a lawyer for a mortgage lender to use Facebook as a method of serving legal documents. The purpose of the suit: to let a couple know that they’re about to lose their home through foreclosure after defaulting on a loan.
Will this trend follow in the U.S.? It is not unreasonable to assume that a person can be legally “notified” via Facebook, a site frequented regularly by users to stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues. Legal experts state that United States judges have the leeway to authorize serving legal documents through Facebook. “I don’t see why in the proper case a judge wouldn’t authorize it, as long as it was reasonably calculated to reach the defendant,” said Rory Ryan, a law professor at Baylor Law School in Texas and contributor to the civil procedure blog.
Traditionally, judges are conservative in how they expect the other side to be notified about a pending lawsuit. Federal rules for civil cases mandate the three types of notification are permitted: 1) handing it to someone, 2) mailing it to the last known address and 3) leaving it at a home or workplace. Electronic means are generally permitted only if the recipient consents in writing.
However, Rules for state courts vary, and some are more permissive. Alaska, for example, allows “alternate service” such as publication in a newspaper, if traditional methods don’t work. Utah and Connecticut also have similar procedures.
In general, judges want to use any reasonable means to notify someone of legal action against them, so there is no reason that MySpace and Facebook accounts would be off-limits. “I don’t think Facebook is going to be the first resort of many judges but I don’t see why it could be categorically excluded,” Ryan said.
The trend of using e-mail to serve a party has already started: In 2006, attorneys for a plaintiff in a New York federal court persuaded a judge to allow them to serve a summons that way. The reason they received permission is that the defendant’s lawyer wouldn’t say where he is, but he had used an e-mail address in a recent classified ad. Also, a federal judge in California allowed documents to be served on Wikileaks through e-mail.