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Please Come to Court

The harder a defendant is to serve, the less likely I will be able to satisfy the judgment.

By Harold Stotland, JD

As a teenager, when I received my first ticket for illegal parking, I did not think about the significance of that document. At the time, I realized that I had to either pay the fine or my parents would find out about it. Later, as a law student, I finally read every word contained in the ticket and discovered that it was a court summons, and was surprised to learn that the ticket was actually a notification of a court date to contest the charge against me.

Most people do not realize the tremendous progress made by the legal system when the summons was introduced as a means of notification to a defendant. Today, creditors' attorneys must expend a great deal of time, effort and money to properly serve a defendant with summons. In Illinois, for example, an individual must be served personally or the papers must be left with a member of the household. In addition, another copy must be mailed to the defendant, at the same address at which the summons was successfully served.

In a city full of high-rise apartment buildings and fiercely loyal doorkeepers, getting past the first floor can sometimes require a court order, even for a determined deputy sheriff. As a result, many states have created alternative methods of service of summons on individuals. Posting notice on the door of an apartment, delivery to the defendant's employer or even using ordinary mail in our bankruptcy courts are some examples. In each of these cases, a copy must also be sent by regular mail to the defendant. Illinois allows judges to determine a method for the service of summons, which is tailored to a particular situation.

One issue debated both in and out of the legal system involves the level of deception that a sheriff or private process server may use to serve a defendant. Old Illinois appellate cases suggest that it is wrong for process servers to deceive a defendant into opening up his or her door at home so that summons can be served. However, those of us who have experienced the problems surrounding service of process realize that very few individuals would ever get served with summons if some level of deception were not employed.

Despite all of the changes in civil procedure over the years, it can still be frustrating and time-consuming to effect service of summons. Creditors have to be patient. Few reports are more frustrating to write than ones that explain to a client that summons cannot be served on a defendant. My 35 years of experience tells me that the harder a defendant is to serve, the less likely I will be able to satisfy the judgment.

One way clients can assist in keeping down the cost of service is to provide as much information as possible regarding the debtors’ whereabouts when they first submit a claim. Documents such as credit applications or credit reports, returned checks, or even correspondence from the debtor containing his or her business or residence address can be extremely helpful. Armed with such information, we are less likely to attempt service at addresses that are no longer valid, resulting in less cost and frustration to the client.


Harold Stotland is a principal with Teller, Levit & Silvertrust, P.C. in Chicago, Ill., where he directs and supervises the firm's Commercial Collection Division. Contact him at

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