“I Just Work Here”: Service on Corporate “Employee” Not The Same As Service On Corporate “Agent” – IL Court


Route 31, LLC, v. Collision Centers of America, 2015 IL App (2d) 150344-U examines the law and facts that determine whether service of process on a corporation complies with Illinois law.

The plaintiff served its lawsuit on the defendant’s office manager and eventually won a default judgment.  About nine months later, the corporation moved to quash service and vacate the default judgment on the basis that service was defective.  The trial court denied the motion and the defendant appealed.

The corporate defendant argued that the court had no personal jurisdiction over it since the plaintiff improperly served the lawsuit. A judgment entered without personal jurisdiction can be challenged at any time.

  • Personal jurisdiction may be established either by service of process in accordance with statutory requirements or by a party’s voluntary submission to the court’s jurisdiction.
  • Strict compliance with the statutes governing the service of process is required before a court will acquire personal jurisdiction over the person served.
  • Where service of process is not obtained in accordance with the requirements of the statute authorizing service of process, it is invalid, no personal jurisdiction is acquired, and any default judgment rendered against a defendant is void.
  • Section 2–204 of the Code provides that a private corporation may be served by leaving a copy of the process with its registered agent or any officer or “agent” of the corporation found anywhere in the state or in any other manner permitted by law. 735 ILCS 5/2–204 (West 2012).
  • Substitute service of a corporation may be made by serving the Secretary of State. 805 ILCS 5/5.25(b)
  • A sheriff’s return of service is prima facie evidence of service, which can be set aside only by clear and satisfactory evidence.
  • However, when a corporation is sued, the sheriff’s return as to the fact of agency is not conclusive. Id.

(¶¶ 13-14)

Employee vs. Agent: “What’s the Difference?”

Employee status and agency are often used interchangeably in common parlance but the terms differ in the service of process context.  An employee is not always an “agent.”   Illinois cases have invalidated service of process on corporations where a plaintiff, in different cases, served a cashier and receptionist with process and neither understood what it was.

But at least one court (Megan v. L.B. Foster Co., 1 Ill.App.3d 1036, 1038 (1971), did find that “service upon an intelligent clerk of a company who acts as a receptionist and who understood the purport of the service of summons” was sufficient service on a corporate employee.

In Collision Centers, the plaintiff and defendant submitted warring affidavits.  The plaintiff’s process server testified that the summons recipient held herself out as the “office manager,” and acknowledged that she was authorized to accept service.  The office manager’s affidavit said just the opposite: she claimed to have no corporate responsibilities or authority to receive legal papers for her employer.

The court noted that under the process server’s affidavit, the office manager was akin to an agent – an “intelligent” company representative who appreciates the importance of the served summons.

Yet the defendant’s office manager swore she was only a garden-variety “employee” who lacked any corporate authority to accept service and lacked a basic understanding of the papers’ meaning.  In fact, the office manager stated in the affidavit that she was badgered into accepting the papers by the plaintiff’s process server.

The widely divergent affidavit testimony meant the court could only decide the service issue after an evidentiary hearing with live testimony.  Since plaintiff has the burden of proving proper corporate service and never requested an evidentiary hearing in the trial court, the trial court erred in denying defendant’s petition to quash service without first conducting a hearing.  As a result, the judgment against the corporation was reversed.

Afterwords:

This case highlights the importance of a civil suit plaintiff’s vigilance when serving a corporation.  If service on a registered agent of a corporation (something that is typically public record via a Secretary of State website) isn’t possible, the plaintiff should take pains to serve an officer of the corporation or at least a knowledgeable agent.  Unfortunately, in Illinois at least, this isn’t always possible on the first try since service must usually go through the County Sheriff in the first instance.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.