Those Slippery People: Six (6) Failed Service Attempts Not Enough For Service by Special Order of Court (IL Law)

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Code Section 2-203.1, titled “Service by Special Order of Court” allows a plaintiff to request service by alternative or “comparable” means when faced with an elusive defendant.  735 ILCS 5/2-203.1.  The statute requires a supporting affidavit that details the specific attempts made to locate a defendant and permits the court to authorize service in a manner that complies with due process.  Id. 

I usually file Section 2-203.1 motions in cases involving high-rise condominium defendants (typically in mechanics’ lien actions).  Some of these condos are impenetrable fortresses it seems; which makes it next to impossible to serve a building resident.  I support the motion with an affidavit of a special process server who details the efforts he made (including dates, times, locations, methods) to serve the defendant. 

If the court grants the motion, I tell the process-server to leave a copy of the summons and complaint with the defendant’s doorman (where a condo is involved) or by leaving process on defendant’s porch or posting on the front door (in case of a house) while also mailing the process to the defendant’s home and place of business (if known).  

But how many times do you have to try to serve a defendant directly before alternate service methods can be employed?  

In Sutton v. Ekong, 2013 IL App (1st) 121975 , the First District vacated a trial court default judgment and held that six unsuccessful service attempts was insufficient to merit service by special order of court. 

The reason: the personal injury plaintiff made no attempt to serve defendant at his easily discoverable business address prior to filing his 2-203.1 motion. 

After his sixth failed attempt, the plaintiff served defendant through the Illinois Secretary of State pursuant to Section 10-301 of the Illinois Vehicle Code: the section that governs serving non-resident defendants.  Ekong, at ¶ 6; 625 ILCS 5/10-301.  

A plaintiff who seeks to invoke special order of court service under Code Section 2-203.1 must strictly comply with that section and a failure to do so results in improper service. 

 The record demonstrated that Defendant’s business address was “easily obtainable” and “in the phone book.”  (¶¶ 21-22).  Evidence of the defendant’s easily found work address was the fact that plaintiff served a citation to discover assets on the defendant at the work address. (¶ 23). 

The First District held that the plaintiff failed to perform the type of search or investigation “an earnest person” trying to serve a defendant would make and should have tried to serve defendant at his business address before seeking alternative service methods. 

The Court distinguished In re Marriage of Schmitt (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/il-court-of-appeals/1123974.html) a divorce case where a plaintiff was allowed to employ alternate service methods after eleven (11) unsuccessful attempts.  (¶ 24).

But here, the Court found that since there was no basis to justify service through the Secretary of State, the trial court never properly acquired jurisdiction over the defendant.  Accordingly, the default judgment is void from its inception.

Take-aways: I feel the plaintiff’s pain on this one.  Slippery defendants can be nightmares to serve through normal channels.  But this case’s lesson is clear: plaintiffs should make thorough and meaningful efforts to investigate a defendant’s whereabouts and try to serve him not only at his home but also his business address. 

Service through the Secretary of State or through comparable methods really should be a last resort.  Where a defendant’s residence or business address is readily obtainable through rudimentary investigation, service by special order of court isn’t warranted and any default judgment based on such service will likely be vacated.