Serving Court Papers on a Business

When suing a business, you need to serve your court papers on the defendant/business. This is known as service of process and is required in order for your claim to proceed. If you use the personal service or certified mail service methods for serving your papers, you'll need to know how the business is legally organized in order to determine who you must serve. And if you know only a business defendant's post office box, you'll normally want to get its street address.

Who Should Be Served?

No matter which method of service you choose, whom you must serve depends on how the business is organized.

Sole proprietorship. Serve the owner.

Partnership. Serve at least one partner.

Limited partnership. Serve the partner who runs the business (the general partner) or the agent for service of process.

Corporation (profit or nonprofit). Serve an officer (president, vice-president, secretary, or treasurer) or the agent for service of process.

Limited liability company. Serve an officer (president, vice-president, secretary, or treasurer) or the agent for service of process.

What if you don't know who the owner, partner, or officer of a business is? One simple approach is to call the business and ask who, and where, they are. If they won't tell you, the city or county tax and license people where the business is located should be able to do so. For a corporation, limited partnership, or LLC organized in your state, you should be able to get this information from the office of the secretary of state for your state.

Substituted or Personal Service

If you need to serve papers on a business with a local office, store, or other physical location, personal service or substituted service is best if your state allows this type of service. Have a process server or "disinterested adult" attempt to deliver the papers personally to the proper person at the business address. If the person is unavailable, the process server should leave the papers at the defendant's business during usual business hours with the person in charge (this is the first step in "substituted service"). Then, mail a copy of the summons and complaint, via certified mail, to the person to be served at the same address.

Here are options for who can serve the papers.

  • Sheriff, marshal, or constable. All states allow personal service to be made by law officers, although not all officers will serve civil subpoenas.
  • Private process servers. Many states also allow service by private process servers, whom you will find listed in the yellow pages. Fees charged are usually based on how long the service takes.
  • Service by disinterested adult. Some states allow service by any person who is at least 18 years old, except the person bringing the suit. Any person means just that–a relative or a friend is fine. However, many states require that this person be approved by the court.

If the process server locates the right person, but the person refuses to take the paper, acts hostile, or attempts to run away, the process server should simply put the paper down and leave. Valid service has been accomplished.

Certified Mail Service

Service via certified mail is probably your best bet if the business doesn't have a local office, store, or other physical location and if your state allows this type of service. To serve a business via certified mail, ask the court clerk to send the court papers to the proper person and address and pay the small fee. You can serve:

  • the proper person as listed in "Who Should Be Served," above, or
  • the business's registered agent for service of process, if the business has its only address outside of your state.

Serving a Business With a Post Office Box Address

If you know nothing more than the business's post office box, you'll need to get a street address in order to serve the business. To do this, you must give the post office a written statement saying that you need the address solely to serve legal papers in a pending lawsuit. This should work, but if it doesn't, refer the post office employee to the Post Office's Administrative Support Manual § 352.44e(2). There is no fee for the Post Office providing this information. 39 CFR § 265.6(d)(4)(ii).

Proof of Service

If you have asked the court clerk to serve your papers by certified mail, you need do nothing else. The court clerk sends out the certified mail for you, and the signed post office receipt comes back directly to the clerk if service is accomplished. It's as simple as that.

However, a court has no way of knowing whether or not papers have been successfully filed by personal service, substituted service, or first-class mail unless you tell them. So, you are required to do so. Notification is accomplished by filing a form known as a Proof of Service with the court clerk after the service has been made. The Proof of Service form must be signed by the person actually making the service. A Proof of Service is used both by the plaintiff and by the defendant if the defendant files a defendant's claim. It must be returned to the clerk's office.