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New Jersey Judge Approves of Service over Facebook

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Locating and serving a defendant with a lawsuit can be one of the most challenging aspects of certain family law cases. Often, parties have moved without providing a forwarding address or contact information, leaving co-parents or former partners without a way to present them with an official copy of a summons and complaint, alerting the absent party to the fact that they’re being sued for divorce, alimony, or spousal support. After a recent ruling by a Morris County judge, this fact may change. The court has allowed frustrated parents in a post-adoption case to serve a defendant with a demand for a restraining order via social media.

The groundbreaking case, titled Axberg v. Langston, is the first recorded instance in New Jersey that a judge has permitted service through social media. The plaintiffs in the case were the parents of an adopted son. The boy had been adopted at birth. Beginning in November of 2015, a man unknown to either the boy or his parents began reaching out to members of the family on Facebook. The man contacted the boy through Instagram, describing himself as the boy’s “real father” and saying that he wanted to have a relationship with the boy. The boy alerted his mother and father of this contact. When the parents searched for the man on Facebook, they found that the man had taken a photo of the boy from the adopted father’s Facebook page and included it in a collage of his other children, describing the boy as another of his children. The parents sought to file a restraining order against the man, but could not figure out how to serve him with the summons. They could not locate a current address or telephone number for him, and had no idea where he lived.

Under federal and state law, defendants to a case must be provided with notice of a lawsuit that is “reasonably calculated” to inform the defendant of the lawsuit, and to give them an opportunity to respond to the case. Traditionally, courts require either in-person service (i.e., the process servers you’ve seen on TV who hand over an envelope and say “you’ve been served”), or service via certified mail. However, New Jersey courts will allow alternative means of service where either the parties agree to electronic service, or when the plaintiff cannot find another way to serve the defendant. Increasingly, courts have allowed service via email when no current mailing address for the defendant is known.

In this case, the parents requested that the court permit them to use Facebook to serve the man with notice of the requested restraining order. The judge required that the family meet a three-part test before he would approve of service through Facebook. First, the family needed to show that there was evidence that the account belonged to the man they wished to serve. Second, they had to show that the account was being actively used by the man. Third, they needed to show whether additional means of service were necessary. The family showed authenticity by comparing photos posted on his Facebook page with those posted on other social media pages used to contact the family, and proved that he was an active user through demonstrating how frequently the man posted to his page. Once the papers had been sent via Facebook message, the parents used Facebook’s built-in ability to notify senders when a message has been read to prove to the court that the man had seen the documents. They also presented the judge with a print-out of the man’s response (“I will see you in court”) to prove that he understood that a case was ongoing. The man appeared at the hearing via telephone. Ultimately, the court put a final restraining order in place that prohibited the man from contacting the boy any further. The case could provide valuable support for spouses, parents, or families who are unable to locate defendants to family court actions but need to prove that a party has been served before they can pursue additional legal remedies.

If you’re facing divorce or a custodial dispute in New Jersey, seek representation you can trust by contacting the seasoned and effective Union family law attorney John B. D’Alessandro for a consultation, at 908-964-0102.

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