Serving U.S. Servicemembers Abroad, Seconda Parte (Part Two)— real world.

Serving U.S. Servicemembers Abroad, Seconda Parte (Part Two)— real world.

A war story, of sorts—told with the permission of my client, a highly regarded personal injury lawyer.  He is one of those guys all the newbie lawyers regard with awe (as do I) because he’s got mad skills in a courtroom.  He found himself in a bit of a quandary last year, and sought help from someone who knows.

He has a medical malpractice suit currently pending, in which a hospital and several doctors are named as defendants.  In the intervening time since the incidents giving rise to the suit, one of the physician defendants joined the United States Navy, and was stationed at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily.

 Sicily coast [Not a rough assignment.  Anyplace called the “Jewel of the Med” is a pretty good billet. —> ]

The client called me last summer to inquire about serving the Navy doctor.   An awfully tough goal, I told him, explaining the gist of my recent post “Serving U.S. servicemembers abroad”.

In a nutshell, if the G.I. lives on a military installation, you’re probably going to have to wait until they return stateside.  A number of rules collide to create a real Catch-22 in serving process… our military authorities either can’t or won’t serve process, and the servicemember’s quarters are off-limits to local authorities.  [Hat tip to Yossarian.]

As luck would have it, though, my client had what he thought was a regular address in Catania, the city between the naval base and beautiful, volcanic Mount Etna.  We hired an Italian investigator who was able to confirm that the address was indeed that of the defendant.  The Navy doc had done what I would do in such a situation… she rented an apartment “on the economy”, as the grown-ups used to refer to off-base housing when I was a brat overseas.

Living in civilian housing put her squarely under the jurisdiction of the local prosecutor, who had the responsibility of serving process pursuant to our request under the Hague Service Convention.  Within a few weeks, the Italians sent word that the defendant had been served because the prosecutor had mailed the documents to her apartment.  They returned proof of service for submission to the venue court, going so far as to cite the various sections of the Italian Civil Code that made it effective.  Defense counsel argued that the doctor had never actually received the summons, so the case against her ought to be dismissed for want of proper service.  Counsel asserted that the Hague Service Convention requires actual delivery to the defendant (it doesn’t), that Italian law requires actual delivery to the defendant (it doesn’t), and that the appropriate authority for the venue court to look to was the European Judicial Network (um… I had to look that one up).

The Convention requires no such thing.  It requires only that the Central Authority of the destination state attest to the effectiveness of service according to its own laws, if indeed that service can be completed.  U.S. caselaw, moreover, cautions courts against analyzing matters of a foreign country’s law when the Central Authority certifies that a method of service is valid.  In short, leave interpretation of foreign countries’ laws to the foreign countries themselves.  [Imagine the howls of protest if an Italian court were to overturn the U.S. Central Authority’s certification of compliance with American law!]

Not only does Italian law require no such thing, but according to the documentation provided by Italian authorities, service by mail is specifically authorized.  Indeed, many civil law countries actually prefer service by mail or mere deposit in a defendant’s mailbox.  Things truly operate differently abroad.  The point is, Italy doesn’t require that the summons reach the defendant’s hands, as counsel argued to the court.

Most puzzling, though, was the contention that the European Judicial Network was a valid interpreter of Italian law, superior even to an Italian court.  The closest U.S. analog would be the Judicial Conference of the United States—but even that analogy falls short because the JCUS has actual statutory authority to set certain policy for the federal judiciary.  The EJN, conversely, is a flexible, informal, unofficial group of “contact points” established to facilitate judicial cooperation among members of the European Union.  Hardly an authoritative body.  [The real analogy here would arise if the JCUS were cited as an authority on Florida law, or New York law, or Colorado law.  Simply put, it lacks such power.  And so does the EJN as to Italian law.]

Cutting to the chase, the venue court agreed with us and denied the motion to dismiss.  Very tersely.

The takeaway: my client did it right.  He’s a master in front of a jury, and he’s been highly successful at vindicating the rights of tort victims.  The guy knows what he’s doing.  But he still called in some help when he saw the challenge in front of him.  Rather than spending the time and resources to serve an overseas defendant himself (and thereby save a few bucks on paper), he sought outside help—more cost-effective, accurate, expeditious help from someone who knows the intricacies of service abroad.

 

Photo credits: **** Main title, from the U.S. Navy at http://www.med.navy.mil/sites/sigonella/clinics/sig/Documents/Hospital%20-2013.jpg  **** Shoreline from the Department of Defense’s Sigonella page at http://www.militaryinstallations.dod.mil/dav/lsn/LSN/IMAGE/IMAGE_CONTENT/2390531.jpg

 

 

Military servicemembers and divorce

Military servicemembers and divorce

Your client is a G.I.— a grunt, a leatherneck, a swabbie, or a flyboy.  While he was stationed overseas, he met a girl who he thought was the love of his life.  After a whirlwind romance, they got married, and she followed him stateside.

Eventually, things went south.  For whatever reason, marriages end every day, but for military families they are particularly heart-wrenching, especially when the non-military spouse is from another country.

When that foreign spouse leaves the U.S., the divorce process is decidedly more difficult because service of process isn’t quite as simple as hiring a server to hand her the documents.  Doctrines of international and foreign law must be observed.  Those doctrines vary wildly from country to country, so what is appropriate in England or Belgium might be expressly prohibited in Germany or Japan.

Family lawyers representing military clients must be meticulous about ensuring that service is effected properly—even if the court is unaware of the proper procedure—and just reading the applicable treaty or status or forces agreement is not enough.  The nightmare scenario if the procedure is not carried out correctly: the foreign spouse has a change of heart, returns to find her husband married again… and files an action to nullify his later marriage.  Far-fetched, of course, but possible.

Our legal staff can provide the guidance necessary to ensure that service is effected the right way.

(Where a spouse seeks to serve a U.S. servicemember stationed or deployed abroad, it gets even more complicated.  We elaborate here.)

 

(The picture above: Elizabeth Bowles-Lyon and Prince Albert, later known as King George VI.  They made it, and their story won Best Picture.  Their grandkids, not so successful.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Serving U.S. servicemembers abroad

Serving U.S. servicemembers abroad

A particular quirk arises in serving a defendant if he or she is a U.S. servicemember stationed abroad.  For the most part, I explain to clients that such an objective is a tough one, so they might have to simply wait until the defendant returns to the United States.   [This is not, as one might assume, due to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (formerly the Soldiers & Sailors Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C. §§ 3901-4043).  That statute stays proceedings, tolls statutes of limitation, and provides a host of other protections to uniformed defendants, but it does not address service of process.]

Defendants must, of course, be served according to the rules of the forum court.  But when a servicemember is stationed in another country, they can only be served within the strictures of applicable international agreements.   The Hague Service Convention is chief among the governing treaties, but no less important are individual Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs), which govern access to U.S. installations by civilians and local authorities.

Herein lies the quandary, with several contradictory components.  Unless the defendant has a discernible civilian address (that is, not located on a U.S. installation), standard methods of service will be unavailable.

  • Hague service is not available without an address.  If a defendant lives in a barracks or other on-post* housing, then they simply don’t have an address.  Of course, “1234 Eisenhower Drive” or simply “Building 2375” may be valid for telling friends where to gather for a social engagement, but the addressing system is most likely unknown to local authorities (both civil authorities and the post office).  It has no legal effect, and can change by the simple act of a clerk.
  • Even if the defendant does have a discernible on-post address, mail is generally not delivered to such an address, and local judicial authorities would most likely be denied access to the post under the governing SOFA.  (Process servers, where they exist, are afforded even less accommodation by post security.)
  • Forget about serving them at the office, especially if “the office” is an artillery range.  Even if a local judicial officer does gain access, those officers generally avoid serving anybody at work.
  • The Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the use of Army and Air Force chains of command for civil purposes, and various Naval regulations likewise create insurmountable roadblocks.  Urban myth advises that a plaintiff simply needs to ask a JAG (Judge Advocate General) office to effect service but this simply isn’t accurate.

So what is a plaintiff to do?  Several options are available, although odds of success are lower than with service on a non-military defendant.

  1. Wait.  Simply hold onto the summons until the defendant returns from his tour of duty overseas, and serve him upon his arrival stateside.  Of course, the court must be made aware of the hurdles to proper notice, so an order excusing non-service may be issued to protect the plaintiff from dismissal.
  2. Request leave to serve via U.S. mail at his known APO or FPO (Army/Air Post Office or Fleet Post Office) address.**  APO/FPO addresses are not tied to geography like a street address is.  If a unit stationed in Germany is temporarily transferred to Kuwait, a soldier’s address may not change–or if it does, the APO staff in Germany will automatically forward his mail to the new address as a matter of course.  In short, the soldier will get his mail.
  3. Request leave to serve by electronic mail.**  All U.S. personnel are issued email addresses for official use, and they are generally permitted to use those addresses for personal communication while stationed abroad.  Moreover, given the ubiquity of free email servers, it is nonsensical for an active duty defendant to argue that he/she does not have a personal email account.  And like APO/FPO addresses, email addresses are tied to an individual, rather than to a physical location, so treaty considerations are less daunting.  (E-mail’s acceptance as a means of effective service is growing, slowly but surely.)
  4. If the defendant happens to live in civilian housing (“on the economy”) and his address can be ascertained, serve via traditional channels.  This may come in different forms, so significant brainstorming is necessary.

Serving a G.I. isn’t as easy as serving other defendants, but it may still be possible with creative thinking.  Call us and we can bat around some ideas.


The author is an Army brat.  An Army installation is referred to as a post, and it is painful to call it anything else.  Not a fort, not a base, and certainly not a campus.  With all respect to the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, you’ll have to substitute your own terminology on this one.  Post, base, installation… you get the idea.

** Use of APO/FPO mail or of U.S. military e-mail servers may run afoul of the Posse Comitatus Act.  The issue has not been addressed in case law as of this writing.