Case Alert – Ruffino v. Lokosky In The Age Of Email, Service By Publication Is On The Way Out

In Ruffino v. Lokosky, No. 1 CA-CV 17-0353, 2018 WL 3384998 (Ariz. Ct. App. July 12, 2018), the Arizona Court of Appeals held that, under some circumstances, alternative service by email, or even social media, may be a more appropriate means of providing notice of a lawsuit than service by publication.

Judge Paul J. McMurdie delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Presiding Judge Diane M. Johnsen and Judge David D. Weinzweig joined.

Ruffino filed suit against Lokosky for defamation and other related torts for a series of statements by Lokosky on her website. After several failed attempts to serve Lokosky at three addresses identified through skip tracing, Ruffino proceeded with service by publication. Lokosky failed to appear, and the superior court entered a default judgment awarding Ruffino $264,062.50 in damages and injunctive relief. The default judgment was later amended to permit Ruffino to take control of Lokosky’s website, and it was at this point that Lokosky first appeared in the action. Lokosky sought a temporary restraining order and also asked the court to set aside or vacate the default judgment under Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 55(c) and 60(b).

After an evidentiary hearing on the issue of service, the superior court made a factual finding that “Ruffino could have communicated with Lokosky about service through several online channels,” which the court later clarified included Lokosky’s email address, phone number, and social media that Ruffino had previously used to communicate with her.  Id. at ¶ 6.

Under Rule 4.1(l)(1), service by publication may be made only if “the serving party, despite reasonably diligent efforts, has been unable to ascertain the person’s current address;” or “the person to be served has intentionally avoided service of process;” and  “service by publication is the best means practicable in the circumstances for providing the person with notice.”

The court held that Ruffino had failed to satisfy the requirement of Rule 4.1(l)(1)(A)(i) that he make “reasonably diligent efforts” to ascertain Lokosky’s current address prior to effecting service by publication, because he did not attempt to contact the defendant via available online channels. Id. at ¶ 14 (“A reasonably diligent effort by Ruffino would have included reaching out to Lokosky via telephone, email, or even social media to verify her correct address.”).

The court further held that, even if the plaintiff had made such reasonably diligent efforts, service by publication would still not be available because under the circumstances it was not the best means practicable to provide notice, as required by Rule 4.1(l)(1)(B). The court stated that “[g]iven our present society, we agree with the superior court that modern methods of communication, especially email, were more likely to give Lokosky notice of a suit than publication in a newspaper distributed in a rural area 70 miles from Lokosky’s Scottsdale home.” Id. at ¶ 16 (emphasis added).

Civil litigators should all sit up and take notice of the court’s opinion in Ruffino. In most civil disputes between parties that already know each other—which includes the vast majority of business disputes—the parties will have already communicated by email, phone number, or social media. Ruffino effectively eliminates the availability of service by publication in these cases. However, Ruffino also sends a strong message to lower courts that service by email, and even social media, should be taken seriously as viable methods of satisfying due process. In theory, our courts have always had the procedural authority under Rule 4.1(k) to approve these methods of service (and Rule 5(c)(2)(D) contemplates service after appearance by electronic means), but there has never been clear precedent from our court of appeals blessing these methods as not only valid, but also superior to service by publication.

Going forward, if the current address of the defendant is not known and cannot be discovered through conventional means, litigators should always ask their clients whether they are able to contact the defendant via email or social media. If so, use those channels to ask the defendant for a current address and, if possible, to send a copy of the service package. Be sure to document your efforts. If the defendant does not cooperatively provide you with a current address, Ruffino provides a strong basis to move for alternative service using the online channel available to you.

This is a sensible and very welcome decision by the court. Despite historical acceptance of service by publication, the idea that publication of a summons in the back pages of some obscure physical newspaper is an effective way to give notice in our modern age borders on absurdity.