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Byrd v. District of Columbia

August 10, 2005

VERNA BYRD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This matter is before the Court on defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint for improper service of process pursuant to Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Upon consideration of defendant's motion and plaintiff's opposition, the Court concludes that plaintiff did not properly serve defendants in accordance with Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(j) and Rule 4(j)(1) of the District of Columbia Superior Court Civil Rules. The Court also finds that plaintiff has demonstrated good cause for her failure to effect proper service, and therefore will afford plaintiff additional time to effect proper service of process.

I. BACKGROUND

On December 27, 2004, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court, alleging that defendants discriminated against her on the basis of her sex during plaintiff's employment at the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. See Compl. ¶ 3. Plaintiff attempted to serve defendants on or about December 28, 2004 by sending the summons and complaint via certified mail to Mayor Anthony Williams, in care of the District of Columbia Office of Risk Management at Suite 800 South, 441 4th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20001. See Opposition to Motion to Dismiss for Improper Service of Process ("Pl. Opp.") ¶ 2. Plaintiff alleges that on January 26, 2005, Teresa J.A. Quon, Section Chief of the District of Columbia General Litigation Section III, Office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia, informed plaintiff's counsel in a telephone conversation that process had been improperly served and that plaintiff needed to serve the Secretary of the District of Columbia at 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. See id. ¶ 3. Plaintiff's counsel asked for a "citation to the precise authority identifying the correct method of service on the District," whereupon Quon faxed a copy of two Mayoral Orders governing service of process upon the District. See id. Plaintiff subsequently telephoned the Office of the Attorney General to verify the correct address and "confirmed that 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Room 419, was the correct address for certified mail for this purpose." See id. ¶ 3.*fn1

On February 2, 2005, plaintiff sent the summons and complaint by certified mail, return receipt requested, to "the Mayor of the District of Columbia c/o the Secretary of the District of Columbia" at the address provided by Ms. Quon. See Pl. Opp. ¶ 4. Melissa Butler, presumably an employee of the Office of the Secretary of the District of Columbia, signed for the letter at the 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue address. See id. ¶ 5. Defendants did not respond until May 12, 2005, when they filed a motion to dismiss for improper service of process. See Mot. to Dismiss; Pl. Opp. ¶ 9.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Adequacy of Service of Process

Rule 4(j)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs service of process "upon a state, municipal corporation, or other governmental organization." The Rule states that service shall be effected by delivering a copy of the summons and the complaint to the chief executive officer (the Mayor of the District of Columbia, in this instance), or "by serving the summons and complaint in the manner prescribed by the law of that state for the service of summons or other like process upon any such defendant." FED. R.CIV. P. 4(j)(2). Rule 4(j)(1) of the District of Columbia Superior Court Civil Rules prescribes the method for effecting service of process on the District:

Service shall be made upon the District of Columbia by delivering . . . or mailing (pursuant to paragraph (c)(3)) a copy of the summons, complaint and initial order to the Mayor of the District of Columbia (or designee) and the Corporation Counsel [now the Attorney General] of the District of Columbia (or designee). The Mayor and the Corporation Counsel may each designate an employee for receipt of service of process by filing a written notice with the Clerk of the [Superior] Court.

Paragraph (c)(3) states that "as to any defendant described in subdivision[] . . . (j), service also may be effected by mailing a copy of the summons, complaint and initial order to the person to be served by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested." D.C. SUPER. CT. CIV.R. 4(c)(3). The Mayor has designated the Secretary of the District of Columbia as his agent for the receipt of legal correspondence including summonses and complaints. See Mayor's Order 2004-77 ¶ 1 (May 14, 2004).

Although Superior Court Civil Rule 4 appears to invite those wishing to effect service of process upon the District of Columbia to mail a copy of the summons and complaint to the Office of the Secretary, service of process under District of Columbia law has been held to be valid only if the mail is signed for by an employee who is designated to receive service of process. In Eldridge v. District of Columbia, 866 A.2d 786, 787-88 (D.C. 2004), a case factually similar to this one, plaintiff had sent copies of the complaint by certified mail to the Mayor and Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia. Id. at 786. Although the mailings apparently reached the correct addresses, "the individuals who acknowledged the complaint, summons and initial order were not the proper designees." Id. at 787. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals stated that:

[A]lthough the complaint was mailed to the Office of the Mayor and the Office of the Corporation Counsel and signed for by employees in those respective offices, they were not, however, signed for and recieved by the specific employees designated to receive service of process. This court, therefore, concludes that [plaintiff] did not effect proper service of process upon the Mayor or the Corporation Counsel in accordance with strictures of Super. Ct. Civ. R. 4(j)(1).

Id.*fn2

Eldridge reaffirms established District of Columbia precedent that service of process is invalid when the plaintiff sends a summons and complaint by certified mail to a defendant's offices but the mail is signed for by a secretary, receptionist, or other individual not specifically authorized to accept service of process. This holds true even if the receptionist or secretary generally opens and signs for the mail delivered to that address. See, e.g., Larry M. Rosen & Assoc., Inc. v. Hurwitz, 465 A.2d 1114, 1117 (D.C. 1983) (service of process invalid when complaint and summons were sent by registered mail to corporate address and opened by receptionist authorized to open any letters addressed to appellants, even though receptionist supposedly delivered a copy of summons and complaint to each appellant); Morfessis v. Marvins Credit, Inc., 77 ...


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