Monday, June 3, 2019
Although the beginning of fraudulent service, coined “sewer service,” had its industry debut nearly 20 years ago, the civil process service industry still suffers from the stigma created by dishonest process servers in the early 2000s. With regulation changes, more education available, and process server organizations offering support, server fraudulence is no longer running rampant as it was when “sewer service” was widespread.
However, the industry still fights to restore its integrity and hold process servers who have gone astray accountable. As we examine what has changed, how the industry is working to hold fraudulent process servers accountable, and how process servers feel about fraudulent servers in the industry, we encourage process servers to work together to make improvements, whether that’s at the legislative level or within process server organizations.
The civil process service industry began seeing an influx of debt collection service requests in the early to mid-2000s as a result of economic changes in the United States. The huge demand for service coupled with few industry regulations resulted in nearly anyone and everyone handling service of process. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous fraudulent practices began that is now referenced as sewer service.
In response to a decade-long streak of sewer service — a term that references the tossing of papers into the sewers instead of a process server actually serving the documents — the courts were scrambling to impose regulations and sanctions against fraudulent servers. A 2009 survey evidenced this by compiling roundtable discussions on how to better educate process servers and improve the industry.
Through the following years, the civil process service industry saw major changes in how servers conducted business. Nearly five years ago, we offered a three-part series highlighting how process servers can stay compliant in response to the most recent round of major regulation changes, which occurred mostly due to the introduction of technology in the industry (GPS, electronic service, etc.).
As we can see from the major impact that sewer service of the early 2000s had on the industry, fraudulent service — and especially widespread, rampant fraudulent service — causes an incredible ripple effect that impacts the industry’s reputation. While process servers today have largely recovered, the sewer service era undoubtedly had a negative effect. Today, process servers work hard to educate themselves in their field and ensure quality service for their clients.
The impact of fraudulent service not only negatively impacts the industry’s reputation, however. The ramifications of improper service can result in default judgments, financial injury, and injustice for those who were relying on the courts to offer justice. Additionally, for those involved in the court proceedings, time is wasted and the delayed or negatively affected proceedings can cause incredible emotional distress for many.
Process Server Dan Davidson, owner of Advanced Process Servers Illinois, explained the seriousness of fraudulent service: “We play such an important part of the entire legal process. If you have a bad server who is ‘sewer serving’ and not serving folks, you could destroy their lives. A warrant could be issued if they don’t show up. A judgment could be entered against the person who was to be served. In the case of an eviction, if the residents are not served the sheriff can show up and put them out into the streets, leaving them to be potentially homeless.”
Moreover, improper service can and often will result in more industry regulation in hopes of preventing those types of issues from occurring again. For example, New York saw major changes as a result of sewer service in 2010, and later, California also followed suit with similar legislative changes as a result of improper service in 2013. While some may view these measures as a positive means for improving the industry, other process servers find the changes costly and time-consuming punitive measures that they must endure for a crime they did not commit.
In the event that a civil process server does the unthinkable and commits fraudulent civil process service, he or she has in effect defrauded not only the individual served but the court as well. The punishment for such behavior varies in each state, but those involved in fraudulent service could see jail time as a number of criminal charges could be brought forth against the individual committing the bad service. Those charges could include but would not be limited to forgery, false documentary evidence, and even identity theft — all with varying degrees of legal ramifications.
For honest process servers, bad actors have no place in the industry. Certainly, many want fraudsters held accountable and barred from the industry. Process server Jeff Bell, owner of JBFL Process, expressed his opinion: “Punishment should be a year suspension or permanent suspension. If you’re in the business, you have to be honest.”
How do process servers stop fraudulent service from occurring, whether indirectly or directly? Many of the process servers we spoke with on the subject encouraged more opportunities for process server education. But when it comes to licensure and/or state or federally mandated regulations, process servers voiced a myriad of differing opinions.
In favor of regulation, Chris Medley, owner of Medley Serves & Investigations, stated that “States should regulate process servers as most states do for private investigators. This will prevent a lot of the fly-by-night process servers who provide low-quality customer service.[…] If they are regulated, we will have the opportunity to show that certain process servers and companies are bonafide and held at a higher standard.”
Medley continued, recalling how distrust has negatively impacted the reputation of process servers so much so that “one of the Judges requires each process server to meet with him in person to go over the proper procedures within the county.”
For many, licensing is the preferred route. Michele Harris with Harris Investigations emphatically stated that licensing and background checks should be required. Several process servers in the Process Servers Network – Servenow.com Facebook group also felt licensing was a step in the right direction.
Brian and Amanda Morgan, who own Hidden Truth Investigative Services, LLC explained that though licensing is helpful, the issue of sewer service is problematic. Brian Morgan stated, “Requiring license and insurance is a great start but will not prevent all sewer servers. In Texas, we have a very good base for requirements.” He went on to explain that even with the acceptable requirements in Texas, they still hear nightmare stories: “One lady told me that a server came to her property, and when she went to take the paperwork from him, he dropped them on the ground. When she said something, he picked them up and dropped them in a puddle of water and walked away. Absolutely zero reasons to behave that way. I apologized to her and explained that this behavior is not acceptable and explained to her that she could file a complaint. I hope she did. Sewer servers make us all look bad.”
For others, however, over-regulation was a clear concern despite the negative impact that sewer service can have. Instead of government regulation, process server and business owner Kyle Vanderwarker with Watchtower Legal Services explained, “I believe the key is for self-regulation. Groups like this [Process Servers Network – Serve Now], NAPPS, WASP, and state organizations can serve as platforms to route out unethical servers by spreading the word. We also need to hold the servers that work for us and the servers that we contract to high standards. Things like requiring proof such as GPS date/time stamped pictures, body cam video, etc should start to become the industry norm. This in itself is a deterrent to ‘sewer service’.”
Vanderwalker continued, “If we ask governmental agencies to start regulating the industry more, where does it stop and how do small businesses compete with those large companies paying next to nothing for serves?”
Like Vanderwalker, process server Ryan Fortune was leery of too much regulation but offered that state regulation could potentially help: “Regulation is a nasty word when you are dealing with contractors. I am not sure that it could even be regulated at a national level at this point. It has to start with each state.”
Overall, process servers should be involved in industry groups to lobby for changes that make sense to them and for the industry as a whole. Without involvement in the industry, process servers will be leaving decisions that impact their jobs up to other people.