Service of process via…Facebook? In a particular case, the judge said yes, and last week, the state Supreme Court’s Committee on Opinions approved the case for publication.
The case involved a Morris County couple and their adopted son, Z.A., who was 10 years old at the time of the filing. Z.A.’s biological father was identified only as J.P. Earlier in 2016, the complaint alleged that defendant J.L. began contacting Z.A. through an Instagram account, copying and pasting photos from Z.A.’s account, and falsely identifying himself as Z.A.’s biological father.
The plaintiffs, in a motion seeking a permanent injunction, said that J.L was a “complete stranger,” and that they had no contact with him until he began posting Z.A.’s photos and pretending to be the boy’s biological father. Plaintiffs’ attorney attempted service via regular and certified mail, with no success. He knew that J.L. lived somewhere in Pennsylvania, but without something more specific, service through publication was useless.
In the opinion, dated April 11, 2016, Morris County Presiding Chancery Part Judge Stephan Hansbury said that because traditional service methods of regular and certified mail failed, service via Facebook was proper – since the social media platform appeared to be the only viable means of contacting the defendant, and it was clear the defendant was actively using his account.
“If…a plaintiff’s reasonable good-faith attempt to effectuate personal service proves unsuccessful, then plaintiffs may then attempt to effectuate service using other secondary methods,” wrote Hansbury. In this case, that meant service via social media. The court was also satisfied that the account was active and receipt of the documents was probable.
This case is an example of judges adapting rules that have been outdated for some time. Of course the best way to ensure service is to reach someone by mail at their home address. That said, there is a large and growing population that receives little physical mail. Likewise, publication notices in newspapers are unappealing because a significant number of people don’t read newspapers anymore, and the ones who do are often reading them online without the local advertisements. Service via email or social media may be the wave of the future, and it’s about time that the rules catch up to reality.