In a little-noticed decision, Matter of Noel v. Maria, Support Magistrate Gregory L. Gliedman—a Staten Island, New York family court official—recently permitted a father seeking to modify his child support payments to serve process on the child’s mother by sending her a digital copy of the summons and petition through her Facebook account.
Magistrate Gliedman’s decision struck us at Socially Aware—where we follow such developments closely—as a groundbreaking move. We are unaware of any published U.S. court opinion permitting a plaintiff to serve process on a domestic, U.S.-based defendant through a Facebook account.
While the same federal district court subsequently allowed the FTC to serve defendants through Facebook in FTC v. PCCare247, the service at issue in that case concerned documents other than the summons and complaint, and the defendants were two India-based entities and three India-based individuals who had already appeared through counsel and shown themselves to be on notice of the lawsuit.
Other cases authorizing service via social media have been similarly limited in scope. For example, in WhosHere v. Orun, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia allowed service via social media on a defendant who allegedly resided in Turkey. In Mpafe v. Mpafe, a Minnesota family court authorized the service of divorce proceedings on a defendant by “Facebook, Myspace or any other social networking site” where the defendant was believed to have left the country.
Further, the court in FTC v. PCCare247 permitted Facebook service only as a backstop to service by regular email, and specified that Facebook service alone might not satisfy due process because—as the court understood it—“anyone can make a Facebook profile using real, fake, or incomplete information, and thus, there is no way for the Court to confirm whether the [party] the investigator found is in fact the third-party Defendant to be served.”
Of course, Facebook has been well known for requiring use of one’s real name in opening a Facebook account. And although Facebook recently modified its real-name policy to accommodate stage names, Facebook remains strongly opposed to fake accounts. That being said, Facebook has acknowledged that many unauthorized accounts exist on its platform.
Moreover, with over 1.5 billion users, it’s not uncommon for people sharing the same or similar names to be mistaken for one another on Facebook; if you can accidentally send a friend request to a stranger who happens to share a name with a childhood classmate, could you end up serving process on the wrong person via a Facebook message?
And although a 2013 study revealed that smartphone users access their Facebook accounts an average of 14 times a day (!), might there be people out there who have a Facebook account but rarely if ever check it? Of course, this particular concern may be overcome by showing that a defendant is actively using his or her Facebook account; indeed, in Matter of Noel v. Maria, the father presented evidence that the mother had recently “liked” photos posted to another Facebook page, indicating that the mother was in fact an active Facebook user.
In any event, Magistrate Gliedman’s decision represents a significant milestone, and deserves greater attention and discussion. As Facebook and other social media practices become ever more deeply integrated into our lives, expect to see other judges and magistrates exploring—and perhaps even expanding—the circumstances under which service of process via a social media channel is deemed appropriate.