Wednesday, February 21, 2007, 2:23 PM

COA: Despite Signed Certified Mail Return Receipt, Service Validity Issues

In In the Matter of K.N., the COA yesterday vacated an order terminating a mother's parental rights. Importantly for a party bringing any type of suit, the COA did so despite a certified mail return receipt that had been signed, and seemingly without proof as to improper service.

Civil Procedure Rule 4 allows for a presumption of proper service where process was signed for by the named party's agent or a person who resides in his or her home. Here, the COA found the presumption of proper service rebutted by: 1) the discrepancy between an address the mother gave the trial court and the address to which the certified mail was directed; 2) the mother's failure to appear at the proceeding; and 3) the lack of information about who the person who signed for the certified mail was.

The COA essentially held that the mother's procedural due process rights to notice and a hearing (here the hearing was only 20 mins. and the mother had not been represented by counsel) had been violated. The COA therefore vacated the order terminating the mother's parental rights.

Notably, the Court suggested that "issues" as to valid service may suffice to invalidate an order. The COA did not indicate, for example, that evidence existed demonstrating that the person who had accepted service for the mother was unauthorized to do so. (Carpenter v. Agee suggests that that's the kind of evidence needed to overcome the presumption of proper service resulting from a return receipt and affidavit of service. 171 N.C.App. 98, 613 S.E.2d 735 (2005)). Nor did the COA indicate (or the appellant affirmatively state in her brief) that the address to which the summons had been sent was actually wrong.

Will future defendants for whom someone else signs when process is delivered be able to overturn adverse judgments by providing discrepant addresses, failing to appear, and leaving unanswered whether the person who signed for service was actually unauthorized? Plaintiffs and petitioners may want to think about these risks in determining whether their proof of service is sufficient.

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