How to properly serve a defendant located within the District of Columbia

By JD Howlette Law
Post card with the words "You've been served!"

DISCLAIMER: The scope of this article is limited to small claims cases filed in the District of Columbia (DC) and the procedures for serving defendants who also reside in DC. Keep an eye out for future Access to Justice articles that discuss the intricacies of serving an out of state defendant or a foreign national residing outside of the United States.

You just filed your statement of claim (also known as the complaint) and case-related documents in the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch of the Superior Court. What next? Once you receive an executed copy of the Notice form back from the clerk of court, you will need to serve each defendant with copies of the following:

  1. Statement of Claim form;

  2. Instructions to Defendant form;

  3. Notice form; and

  4. Any supporting attachments or exhibits.

Copies of these documents may be downloaded using the following links:

Statement of Claim Form, Instructions

Remember to always check the Court's website for the most up-to-date version of these forms.

Serving the Defendant

The process of serving a defendant is commonly referred to as "service of process." If you fail to properly serve a defendant with copies of these documents within 60 days from the date you filed the statement of claim (90 days in a very narrow set of circumstances), then the court will likely dismiss your case and you will need to start the process all over.

It is very important that you properly serve the defendant in strict accordance with the rules because proper service is a prerequisite for a court to obtain personal jurisdiction over a defendant. Personal jurisdiction is a legal concept that refers to a court's power to subject a person to its authority and command. Without personal jurisdiction, a court cannot enter valid judgments or orders against a defendant.

Now we'll discuss the rules for properly serving a defendant who resides within the District of Columbia. First, let's go over who can actually serve process on the defendant.

Who can serve a defendant in the District of Columbia?

Under the District of Columbia Small Claims Rule 4, the following persons may serve process on a defendant:

  1. Any competent person who is at least 18 years old and NOT A PARTY to the lawsuit (or otherwise has an interest in the lawsuit);

  2. The Clerk of Court, if service is done by registered or certified mail on either an individual, a business, or the District of Columbia (or its agencies or employees); or

  3. A United States marshal or deputy marshal if authorized by the court.

How do you properly serve the defendant?

You generally have the option of having someone physically serve copies of the court documents on the defendant or having the Clerk of Court mail copies of the documents to the defendant.

Practice Tip: Since the District of Columbia allows for the clerk of court to serve the defendant by registered or certified mail, this is the preferred choice over the other two options under Rule 4 (and it's the least expensive approach). If choosing this option, you will make the request at the same time you file the case initiation documents with the clerk's office—it's an option that may be selected on the Information Sheet. 

How to physically serve documents on the defendant(s)

If you'd rather go the traditional route of physically serving the defendant with copies of the statement of claim and related documents, then the process differs a little depending on whether you're serving an individual, a business entity, or the DC government.

A) Physically serving an individual within the District of Columbia

You can serve an individual by hiring a process server (or finding anyone over the age of 18 who does not have an interest in the case) to perform any of the following:

  1. Delivering a copy of the documents to the defendant personally (this can be accomplished anywhere as long as the documents are physically handed to the defendant);

  2. Leaving a copy of the documents at the defendant's residence with someone of suitable age (generally 16 years or older) and discretion who resides there; or

  3. Delivering a copy of the documents to an agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service of process (e.g., a guardian ad litem or a conservator).

B) Physically serving a corporation, partnership, or association within the District of Columbia

You can serve an any of these entities by hiring a process server (or finding anyone over the age of 18 who does not have an interest in the case) to deliver a copy of the documents to either:

  1. An officer of the entity;

  2. A managing or general agent of the entity; or

  3. Any other agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service or process. You may also be required to mail a copy of the documents to the defendant under this option if the agent is authorized by statute to receive service of process and the statute requires the extra mailing step.

C) Physically serving the District of Columbia

You can serve the District of Columbia by hiring a process server (or finding anyone over the age of 18 who does not have an interest in the case) to deliver a copy of the documents to BOTH:

  1. The Mayor of the District of Columbia (or designee); and

  2. The Attorney General of the District of Columbia (or designee).

Note, to serve a DC agency or a DC officer or employee in their official capacity, you must serve both the Mayor and Attorney General, as stated above, AND also serve the agency, employee, or officer.