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Haynes v. Johnson

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

April 2, 2018

JOHN WILLIAM JOHNSON, JR., et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the court on the Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(5) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure filed by HTS Express LLC (“HTS Express”). (Doc. # 15). In its Motion, HTS Express contends that it should be dismissed from this action based on Rule 12(b)(5) due to improper service. (Id.). Specifically, HTS Express argues that that service was improper under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. (Id.). Plaintiff has filed a response opposing HTS Express's Motion (Doc. # 15). (Doc. # 22). For the reasons explained below, the Motion (Doc. # 15) is due to be denied.

         I. Background

         On September 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed this action in the Northern District of Alabama against John William Johnson, Jr., HTS Express LLC, and JB Hunt Transportation Services Inc. (Doc. # 1). The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff was involved in a multiple car wreck caused by a tractor trailer driven by John William Johnson, Jr. (“Johnson”) on November 16, 2015. (Id. at ¶ 8.) It also alleges that Johnson was acting in the course and scope of his employer HTS Express at the time of the accident. (Id. at ¶ 9-10).

         HTS Express is a Pennsylvania limited liability corporation. (Id. at ¶ 3). The Pennsylvania Secretary of State lists “5 Crescent Dr., New Cumberland, PA” as the registered agent address of HTS Express. (Doc. # 22-2 at p. 2). It does not include names of a registered agent, officers, or directors of HTS Express. (Id.). Plaintiff believes that Gary Mead (“Mead”), who resides in Pennsylvania, is the sole member of HTS Express. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 3).

         HTS Express's summons was returned unexecuted on October 10, 2017. (Doc. # 7). On November 8, 2017, counsel for Plaintiff contacted a Pennsylvania private investigator in attempt to have HTS Express personally served at the New Cumberland address. (Doc. # 22 at ¶ 6). The Pennsylvania private investigator later informed Plaintiff's counsel that the New Cumberland address was vacant. (Id. at ¶ 7).

         Plaintiff's counsel then hired a private investigator in Birmingham, Alabama, to locate further information on HTS Express. (Id. at ¶ 8). The Birmingham private investigator found that Mead is the point of contact for HTS Express and found an address for Mead. (Id.). With this information, the Pennsylvania private investigator made multiple trips to Mead's address in attempt to serve HTS Express, but no one would answer the door. (Id. at ¶ 9). On December 19, 2017, Andrew Olsen (“Olsen”), who resides with Meade, answered the door and the summons and Complaint were left with him. (Docs. # 15 at p. 6; 22 at ¶ 9). HTS Express filed this instant motion on January 9, 2018. (Doc. # 15).

         II. Analysis

         “By definition, ‘service of summons is the procedure by which a court having venue and jurisdiction of the subject matter of the suit asserts jurisdiction over the person of the party served.'” Prewitt Enterprises, Inc. v. Org. of Petroleum Exporting Countries, 353 F.3d 916, 921 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Miss. Publ'g Corp. v. Murphree, 326 U.S. 438, 444-45 (1946)). “In assessing the validity of service of process, ‘the standards of proof governing motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction' are applicable.” Kammona v. Onteco Corp., 587 F. App'x 575, 578 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Lowdon PTY Ltd. v. Westminster Ceramics, LLC, 534 F.Supp.2d 1354, 1360 (N.D.Ga. 2008)). The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the validity of process on a Rule 12(b)(5) motion. Prewitt Enterprises, Inc. v. Org. of Petroleum Exporting Countries, 224 F.R.D. 497, 501 (N.D. Ala. 2002), aff'd, 353 F.3d 916 (11th Cir. 2003). Importantly, “[a] defendant's actual notice is not sufficient to cure defectively executed service.” Albra v. Advan, Inc., 490 F.3d 826, 829 (11th Cir. 2007).

         Rule 4(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, “A summons must be served with a copy of the complaint . . . within the time allowed by Rule 4(m).” Rule 4(e)(1) explains that an individual within a judicial district of the United States may be served by “following state law for serving a summons in an action brought in courts of general jurisdiction in the state where the district court is located or where service is made.” A corporation, partnership, or association within the United States may be served “in the manner prescribed by Rule 4(e)(1) for serving an individual” or “by delivering a copy of the summons and of the complaint to an officer, a managing or general agent, or any other agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service of process and--if the agent is one authorized by statute and the statute so requires--by also mailing a copy of each to the defendant.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(h)(1). Because Plaintiff filed this action in Alabama and service has been (or attempted to be) made in Pennsylvania, Plaintiff is entitled to follow Alabama, Pennsylvania, or federal law in effectuating service of HTS Express.[1] See Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(e)(1), 4(h).

         A. Service Was Not Effective under Alabama Law

         Under Alabama law, a plaintiff may serve an artificial entity, including a limited liability company, “by serving an officer, a partner (other than a limited partner), a managing or general agent, or any agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service of process.” Ala. R. Civ. P. 4(c)(6). A plaintiff can serve an artificial entity by certified mail if the mailing is addressed to a proper human being who is affiliated with the entity as an officer, partner, or agent as described in Rule 4(c)(6). See Id. at 4(i)(2)(B); see also Ex parte LERETA, LLC, 226 So.3d 140, 145 (Ala. 2016) (“[S]ervice on a corporation or business entity cannot be perfected by certified mail addressed merely to the entity itself.”); Med-Call, Inc. v. Livingston, 64 So.3d 1051, 1054 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010) (explaining that a corporate defendant “could only have been served by providing a summons and a copy of the complaint to one of the persons specified in Rule 4(c)(6)”). Service by certified mail is effective when the mailing is delivered to the named addressee or the addressee's agent. See Ala. R. Civ. P. 4(i)(2)(C). Notably, “[a]n action shall not be dismissed for improper service of process unless the service failed to inform the defendant of the action within time to avoid a default.” Id.

         Plaintiff appears to be arguing that the court should look at both Rule 4(c)(6) and Rule 4(i)(2) of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure to find that service upon HTS Express was effective. (Doc. # 22 at ¶ 13). However, Rule 4(c)(6) concerns service in person (which was how the summons and complaint was served), and Rule 4(i)(2) deals with service by certified mail. Compare Ala. R. Civ. P. 4(c)(6) with Ala. R. Civ. P. 4(i)(2). Plaintiff has not provided the court with authority under Alabama law indicating that service is sufficient when it is served on a co-habitant of a person authorized to receive service on behalf of an artificial entity. (See Doc. # 22). In fact, Alabama law suggests otherwise. See, e.g., LVNV Funding, LLC v. Boyles, 70 So.3d 1221, 1227 (Ala. Civ. App. 2009) (explaining that a plaintiff must prove that a corporation exercised a high degree of control over an alleged agent in order to establish that service on a corporation by service on an alleged agent was proper); Johnson v. Champions, No. CIV.A. 12-0334-WS-M, 2013 WL 275957, at *2 (S.D. Ala. Jan. 24, 2013) (finding that service on an artificial entity by certified mail was not effective when there was no evidence that the person who signed the certified mail receipt had authorization to receive the addressee's mail or deliver it to the addressee). As such, the court finds that Plaintiff has not upheld her burden in illustrating that service on HTS Express was effective under Alabama law. See Prewitt Enterprises, Inc., 224 F.R.D. at 501.

         B. Service Was Not Effective ...

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