Court lets FTC serve litigation documents by Facebook

Decision discusses how courts should allow use of technology of “then-recent vintage”

FTC v. PCCare247 Inc., 2013 WL 841037 (S.D.N.Y. March 7, 2013)

The Federal Trade Commission filed suit against a number of Indian defendants alleging they operated a scheme that tricked American consumers into spending money to fix non-existent problems with their computers. (Ars Technica provided some entertaining background on this industry last fall.)

After some difficulty in effecting service of the summons and complaint on the defendants in India, the FTC asked the court for leave to serve the remainder of the documents in the case (e.g., additional pleadings, motions, notices) via email and Facebook. The court granted the FTC’s motion.

The Federal Rules and Alternative Service

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(f)(3), a court may fashion means of service on an individual in a foreign country, so long as the ordered means of service (1) is not prohibited by international agreement; and (2) comports with constitutional notions of due process. Under Rule 4(f), service of process on foreign corporations may be made in the same manner as on individual defendants.

Not Prohibited By International Agreement

The court noted that the United States and India are signatories to the Hague Service Convention. Article 10 of that Convention allows for service of process through alternative means such as “postal channels” and “judicial officers,” provided that the destination state does not object to those means. India has objected to the means listed in Article 10, although that objection is specifically limited to the means of service enumerated in Article 10.

The court found that service by Facebook is outside the scope of Article 10. And since India has not objected to service by email or Facebook, the court held that international agreement did not prohibit such service.

Comports With Due Process

Quoting Mullane v. Cent. Hanover Bank & Trust Co., the court spelled out that “constitutional notions of due process require that any means of service be ‘reasonably calculated, under all circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.’” Here, the court found, service by email and Facebook were reasonably calculated to provide defendants with notice of future filings in the case.

The FTC had set forth facts that supplied ample reason for confidence that the email and Facebook accounts identified were actually operated by defendants. Two of the defendants had registered their Facebook accounts with email addresses that were independently verifiable. And another of the email accounts was the one used to register one of the defendants’ domain names. The court could also glean information as to the Facebook accounts’ legitimacy by noting that a number of the defendants were Facebook friends with each other.

Service Via Technological Means of “Then-recent Vintage”

The court acknowledged that Facebook service was a relatively novel concept, and that defendants conceivably might not in fact receive notice by that means. But the Facebook service was merely a backstop to email service. (The court observed that “if the FTC were proposing to serve defendants only by means of Facebook, as opposed to using Facebook as a supplemental means of service, a substantial question would arise whether that service comports with due process.”)

It noted that as technology advances and modes of communication progress, courts must be open to considering requests to authorize service via technological means “of then-recent vintage,” rather than dismissing them out of hand as novel. In 1980, in allowing service of Iranian defendants via Telex, a judge from the same court remarked in New England Merch. Nat’l Bank v. Iran Power Generation and Transmission Co. that courts should not “be blind to changes and advances in technology. No longer do we live in a world where communications are conducted solely by mail carried by fast sailing clipper or steam ships.” Twenty-two years later, the Ninth Circuit, in Rio Properties, Inc. v. Rio Int’l Interlink, saw itself “tread[ing] upon untrodden ground” to allow service of process via email.

In this case, taking a cue from Rio Properties to be “unshackled” from “anachronistic methods of service” and, through the due process inquiry be permitted “entry into the technological renaissance,” the court found email and Facebook service to be proper. This was particularly true where defendants were shown to have “zealously embraced” the technologies, and already had knowledge of the lawsuit.

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