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:
Statement of Claim form;
Instructions to Defendant form;
Notice form; and
Any supporting attachments or exhibits.
Copies of these documents may be downloaded using the following links:
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:
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);
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
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. This preferred option is also generally 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.
Physically serving the defendant
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.
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:
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);
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
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).
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:
An officer of the entity;
A managing or general agent of the entity; or
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.
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:
The Mayor of the District of Columbia (or designee); and
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.
About the Author
Attorney Jordan D. Howlette is the founder and managing attorney of JD Howlette Law, a civil litigation and business law firm focused on delivering high-quality legal services to individuals and businesses in a timely, cost-efficient manner. Prior to establishing JD Howlette Law, Mr. Howlette worked as trial attorney in the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he successfully litigated dozens of civil tax cases on behalf of the United States in federal courts around the country, securing millions of dollars in favorable judgments while also advocating for equitable justice. He is intimately familiar with the procedures, strategies, and processes of litigating cases from start to finish in court and with resolving multi-faceted civil disputes involving high-dollar amounts, complex statutory and regulatory provisions, and diverse parties from different jurisdictions.
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. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from JD Howlette Law or the individual author, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this article should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this article without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.