Service of Process...What does it mean?
Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis are recognizable names to most people. More recently they are recognizable for reasons they probably would prefer to avoid, a custody battle. Now I don’t work in the family law part of the law field, but I do deal with service of process. So I figured I would break down some of the commentary that has surrounded the Wilde/Sudeikis controversy.
*DISCLAIMER* I do not practice family law and all advice and information relates to New Jersey and is current at the time the article is originally published. If you reside outside New Jersey or this article is older, you should confirm independently that the information is accurate.
Ok. So I’m a sucker of sorts for celebrity legal gossip. To some degree, who isn’t right? I’ve followed the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp defamation matters (in London and Virginia); I read what I could about the Dr. Dre divorce when it got interesting talking about whether the prenup was valid and whether funds were misappropriated, and now Sly Stallone and his wife are getting a divorce and some shenanigans are being called out. So I was interested to read that Olivia Wilde was served while giving a presentation at CinemaCon earlier this year. But it really got interesting for me when she started commenting on HOW and WHERE she got served:
(I've linked to just a few of the articles that abound on the topic, not an exhaustive search. I attempted to use reliable sources, but feel free to do your own searching if you don't care for the sources).
As an initial matter, service of process is hugely important when a complaint of any kind is filed. It establishes that the party (whether an individual or a business) actually received notice of the claim against them, and in New Jersey, it also comes with information about local legal services for each of the 21 counties. The time period for a default to be entered against a party starts once a person has been served. In civil law cases, we file what is known as an “Affidavit of Service” which has information about the case and who was served, so that later on if there is a question, we have information about the person served, the time served, and the location served. As technology advances, I’m also seeing process servers use that technology to record (i.e. body camera of some kind) the service.
There are rules about how service should be made, which can vary state by state. In New Jersey, you cannot serve someone under the age of 14, the person being served must be a member of the household for the person being served, and personal service is the preferred method. If you cannot serve a person personally or at their household, they can be served in public and at their place of work. Some process servers, if they cannot reach you immediately for service will leave a card asking you to call them to arrange for service to occur on your timetable and at your convenience (Source: It happened to me). People don’t always understand that a process server would like to do their job with an absolute minimum of fuss if they can. But it is also a job, and as long as they are not trespassing, violating a restraining order, or breaking the rules for the particular state, service can really be effectuated anywhere, including CinemaCon. So sometimes we do hear about unusual service being effectuated. When I heard that Wilde was served at CinemaCon, my impression from that given my past experience was that she had been ducking service (note: I do not actually know that to be true, it is merely my opinion). The NPR article has some interesting commentary about unusual service that you might be interested to read about (or not).
Olivia made these statements in certifications and publications, related to Sudeikis’ attempt to serve the custody complaint filed in October of 2021:
“Jason's actions were clearly intended to threaten me and catch me off guard. He could have served me discreetly, but instead, he chose to serve me in the most aggressive manner possible,” she says in the docs.
“The fact that Jason would embarrass me professionally and put our personal conflict on public display in this manner is extremely contrary to our children's best interests,” she goes on.
“To try to sabotage that was really vicious. But I had a job to do. I’m not easily distracted.”
She likened the incident to an employee getting served at their company office and called the security breach “really scary.”
It was my workplace,” Wilde said. “In any other workplace, it would be seen as an attack. It was really upsetting. It shouldn’t have been able to happen.”
So let’s discuss some of the language she used, now that we know a little bit more about the service of process:
The service was probably not intended to intimidate or threaten her, especially since I’ve never (or rarely) had a client direct where or how a party should be served. Rather, it likely occurred after less intrusive methods were unsuccessful. Ducking service doesn’t make the attempts stop.
Had she not identified herself what the paperwork was and made the comments, it is entirely possible that no one really would have *known for sure* that the papers were legal papers. Certainly given the litigation that was filed by Sudeikis was a matter of public record, people could have *guessed accurately* but we as a public would not have known for sure. Except she told us (as I read the news articles published).
An employee getting served at their company office is NOT unusual. New Jersey requires companies to register with the state and identify a registered agent. A registered agent is the person who is officially allowed to accept service on the company. For many, that means literally being served as an employee, while at work. So it shouldn’t be described as “really scary” or “seen as an attack” when it happens all day every day in offices and businesses around the country. Let’s normalize being served, or at a minimum recognize that within the legal system there are checks and balances, and that service of process is one of them. If you get handed legal paperwork, well “You’ve been served” (anyone else read that in the form of Bill Engvall? No, just me then I guess).
I do not practice in family law, but I know people who do. If being served legal papers in public in a way you didn’t prefer is the worst going on for you in a custody dispute, count yourself lucky. (See this article for a New Jersey custody case gone awry.
That’s what I’ve got for today. If you’ve got a legal topic or celebrity legal question, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I just might answer it. Check out our YouTube channel for past videos (Drinkwater & Goldstein, LLP) and our website: drinkwatergoldsteinlaw.com for other posts (which may or may not be as interesting, but are always informative). Thanks for reading.