Kristen Larson |

On February 5, the Florida Supreme Court issued its opinion in Koster v. Sullivan (SC13-159). The main question was over the facts regarding the manner of service that a return of service was required to list in order for service to be presumed valid. Section 48.21, Florida Statutes, invalidates service of process if its return of service fails to state: the date and time that the documents were received by the process server; the date and time they were served; the manner of service; the name of the person they were served upon; and, if they were served upon a representative, the relationship between the representative and the intended recipient. If the intended recipient is not available, section 48.031(1)(a), Florida Statutes, allows the process server to leave the complaint with a resident of the household provided that the individual is at least fifteen years old and is informed of the contents. Koster contended that the return of service was required to list the section 48.031 factors in addition to those prescribed by section 48.21.

In 2009, Sullivan hired a process server to serve a complaint and summons on Koster. The process server delivered the documents at Koster’s place of residence but Koster was not home. The documents were instead left with Koster’s sister-in-law. Koster failed to respond to the pleadings and a default judgment was entered against him. Although service on Koster’s sister-in-law met the requirements of section 48.031, Florida Statutes, the return of service did not specifically state that Koster’s sister-in-law was at least fifteen years old and was informed of the contents. Therefore, Koster motioned the trial court to set aside the judgment, claiming that the service was facially defective. However, the trial court found that Koster failed to “meet the clear and convincing evidence standard to rebut the presumption that service was proper and denied his motion.” Opinion page 3. The Second District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision.

The issue raised required the Court to interpret the statute by looking at legislative intent. When determining legislative intent, the Court must first “look to the actual language used in the statute.” Joshua v. City of Gainesville, 768 So. 2d 432, 435 (Fla. 2000). If the language is clear and unambiguous then the Court must abide by its plain meaning. Id. Because the language of section 48.21, Florida Statutes, is unambiguous about the information to be included on a return of service, the Court determined that it did not have the discretion to require additional information.

Moreover, the Court found that although service of process is essential to the legal system and thus necessitates strict adherence to any statutorily proscribed requirements, “strict construction” does not support reading additional requirements into the express language of a statute.” Opinion page 6. Because the legislature clearly outlined the information to be included on a return of service in section 48.21, Florida Statutes, and because this section makes no reference to the requirements of section 48.031, Florida Statutes, the Court determined that “section 48.21 cannot be strictly read to require that the factors in section 48.031(1)(a) be specified.” Opinion page 7. Therefore, the Court upheld the validity of Sullivan’s service on Koster.

Court Considers What Must be in a Return of Service of Process

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