How to Overcome Challenges as a Process Server
The effective and timely service of legal documents is often crucial to the work of attorneys. If carried out incorrectly, both the legal case in question and the process server themselves may be placed in jeopardy.
In this exclusive interview, Serve Vegas founder Nicholas Ohlson sheds light on the role played by process servers in the legal sector, drawing on his wealth of experience as both an attorney and the head of a fast-growing process services company.
What is the basic premise of process services, and what role do process servers fulfil?
Both the United States Constitution and the Nevada State Constitution contain clauses supporting the rights of all citizens, particularly the right to be aware of one’s involvement in a lawsuit in order for a for the trial to be lawful, i.e. the right to service of process. Service of process protects one’s procedural due process rights, such as the right to be made aware that a lawsuit has been filed against someone. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution provides that a person cannot be deprived of his life, liberty, or property without procedural due process.
Process servers play an integral part in protecting the rights of individuals. The role of a process server is to put people on notice of lawsuits or other legal proceedings that have been filed against them in our court system. In other words, process servers help to ensure that the due process rights of an individual are protected by serving such individuals with a summons and copy of the complaint filed against them.
From your own experience, what matters do process servers typically become involved in handling?
As noted, process servers act as a link between the courts and defendants by ensuring that a person who has been sued has been served with a copy of the action against them. Process servers are typically retained to serve civil complaints, which can include civil litigation, tort law, personal injury, breach of contract, family law and other matters. Process servicers are not usually involved in criminal matters.
Of course, there are time restrictions and other criteria that process servers must meet. Can you tell us more about those restrictions?
Every plaintiff has a limited amount of time, usually 120 days, to serve the defendant with the summons and complaint. This time period is set forth in the Nevada Rules of Civil Procedure, or the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure if the complaint is filed in Federal Court.
When it comes to serving legal documents, anybody who is at least 18 years old and not a party to the action can serve a complaint. It can also be served by marshalls or a deputy marshall, or other persons appointed by the court. In Nevada, a professional process server must be licensed with the State before they can collect a fee to serve documents.
In Nevada, process servers are governed by the State of Nevada Private Investigator Licensing Board. To become a licensed process server in Nevada, one must:
- Be at least 21 years of age;
- Be a citizen of the United States or lawfully entitled to remain and work in the United States;
- Be of good moral character and temperate habits;
- Have not been convicted of:
- A felony
- Any crime involving moral turpitude or the illegal use or possession of a dangerous weapon;
- Undergo a criminal history background check through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Nevada Department of Public Safety;
- Pass an exam with a score of 75% or better (only for individual applicants and qualified agent applicants);
- Meet the experience/education requirement of 4000 hours.
Regarding both the federal and state rules, what are the consequences if a process server fails to meet the due criteria?
If a complaint is not served within 120 days and additional time for service is not requested, a legal action can be dismissed without prejudice. In this event, the plaintiff can initiate a new legal action – provided that the relevant statute of limitations has not expired. If the statute of limitations has expired since the initial action was filed, the plaintiff will not be allowed to refile their lawsuit in the event that it is dismissed for lack of proper service. When a plaintiff has retained the services of an attorney, if the attorney does not make reasonable efforts to hire a process server and serve the defendant with the summons or complaint, that attorney can be subject to discipline by the State Bar of Nevada and/or a complaint for malpractice by their client.
If a complaint is not served within 120 days and additional time for service is not requested, a legal action can be dismissed without prejudice.
You mentioned before that knowledge of these rules and of case law is important to being an effective process server. Are there any other skills or competencies that you would draw upon as part of this role?
Something that has helped us tremendously is being native to Las Vegas. I and most of my staff members are native to the area, so we have a lot of local contacts. For instance, one benefit of being located in Las Vegas is the fact that a lot of people come here – people within the United States and even internationally. We have large conventions here, and we have strategically worked with law firms across the country when they have had international defendants come here for these conventions.
For instance, when the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is in town, we know that certain international vendors are going to be there with a booth, and we are able to serve process on them knowing that they are going to be present. There have been two different years when we were able to serve someone there, and because they have been served in Nevada, this creates jurisdiction and it makes Nevada court more likely to be the proper venue for the case to be heard. Right now, the World Series of Poker is in town, and we are getting phone calls about working with law firms or plaintiffs that have filed a complaint against someone who is going to be present. We have served participants in the World Series of Poker on legal matters in the past.
Las Vegas has always been a hotspot for businesses to come for conventions and for individuals to visit, and it has put us in a very choice position to serve them while they are here. We are currently pursuing service on an individual who is at the World Series of Poker – a low-level player buying into some of the smaller games – and we are coordinating with the plaintiff and their attorney to ensure that they get served.
What sort of obstacles do process servers often encounter that could potentially jeopardise their ability to fulfil their role?
In this current environment, especially coming out of COVID, video doorbells have become extremely common. We are on camera when we walk onto the property, so understanding the rules helps us in being able to navigate that and serve documents. It appears that the courts have also understood some of our issues, because service in this area is not being challenged as much.
When we go to the door and ring the video doorbell, the first thing we do is confirm that this is the defendant’s residence. More often than not, they want to know who we are, and our approach at the door determines our success in serving documents without having them evade. We will ask “Is this the Johnson residence”, for instance, and they will often confirm that – which helps us, because documents can be served at the defendant’s usual place of abode. By confirming that they live there, even if the person on the video doorbell does not want to let us in, we can establish that it is the residence of the defendant.
We then explain who we are and what we are there to do, and it is important that if they still refuse to come to the door, we still announce service and that we are drop-serving the documents at their door. This only occurs if they refuse to cooperate, but a lot of the time, this is what process servers face on their approach.
Las Vegas has always been a hotspot for businesses to come for conventions and for individuals to visit, and it has put us in a very choice position to serve them while they are here.
COVID was very difficult for us; we would be wearing our PPE and masks, we would ring the doorbell and step back, trying to put people at ease. Some people were deeply affected by the pandemic, and it made our job more difficult. But we learned, and adapted our approach. Now if we know someone is home, we can see if they have a vehicle in the driveway and run that license plate to see if it is registered to the defendant. We can include that in our paperwork.
Beyond that, we have the ability to run database searches and get their phone number. Often, if we have made multiple attempts at a door and it is clear someone is home and does not want to come to the door, we can run one of those database searches and call them. More often than not, we can get them to cooperate with service. Of course, we document all of those efforts in our affidavit that is filed with the court, so the court can see that we made all reasonable efforts, that the defendant knows there has been a complaint filed against them and that we are trying to put them on notice.
The biggest obstacle that process servers face is the fact that we deliver bad news. Getting people to cooperate with that while being very respectful and understanding that they may have concerns about answering their door to a stranger is essential.
If you had to give a piece of advice to a less experienced process server, what would it be?
Every jurisdiction is going to have specific rules to follow. Understanding what the rules are is going to make the difference in getting the documents properly served. If the process server does not understand the rules and are not getting those documents served pursuant to the relevant rules of civil procedure, it is going to make the attorney’s life difficult. My team’s goal is to do everything possible to ensure the lawyers, or their paralegals, are not wasting time and money litigating procedure issues like service of process.
Getting the documents served right the first time is key, because once someone has been served and put on notice, and realised that they are part of a lawsuit, it is less likely that you are going to be able to serve them again. Very often, people are not eager to receive bad news and cooperate with someone who is going to make their life difficult by filing a lawsuit against them, which is why it is key to understand the jurisdictional rules and do the job correctly the first time.
In addition to that, it is important that a new process server is trained on how to be safe. It can be a dangerous job, and I personally train all of my process servers on the rules. One of these is that we never go into someone’s home. Sometimes we are invited into the residence, and it is important for us not to put ourselves in a vulnerable situation like that.
It is also very important to keep our distance from that person in case they become irate. It is not our job to explain the paperwork; process servers are very rarely attorneys (I am one of the few attorneys that runs a process serving business). It is not our job to give legal advice, even though people on the door may ask for us to explain things.
It is also important for process servers to keep their phones on them at all times. As an owner of a process serving company, when I see that a defendant has the potential to be dangerous – they have a criminal record, or the plaintiff lets us know that they are hostile (which occurs a lot in divorce cases) – I almost always send a pair of people. When it comes to someone newly getting into the business, it is very important to prioritise safety and make sure that the process servers are familiar with the rules so that they do not make the litigation process more difficult for the attorney or their staff.
Have you seen any significant changes in the process serving field during your time in practice?
Like most professions, process serving has had to evolve along with modern technology. Technology such as GPS mapping and the internet have made being a process server much easier in recent years. The Courts are starting to recognise that most people are easiest, and reliably, found on the internet. As a result, Courts in Nevada have recognised the importance of social media and have begun allowing defendants who are adept at dodging service to be served via Facebook Messenger and Instagram. We have even had orders allowing service through email.
Every situation is different, but the manner in which someone can be served is something that is starting to change in our industry. We are seeing that more frequently in family law cases, where it is undisputed that a social media page belongs to a defendant. Still, we are only able to serve those documents by the order of a judge.
The Nevada Rules of Civil Procedure have evolved as well over the years. In 2019, the Rule concerning the amount of due diligence that we need to serve someone through publication was changed. Service through publication means that, if we have done everything we can to find a person, the documents of a legal matter can be run through a publication for a period of two weeks, satisfying the process. Most states allow this. What we are starting to see in Nevada and other states is that we are now needing to complete these formerly alternative methods of service as part of our regular due diligence, which is certainly something new.
About Nicholas Ohlson
How did you get your start in law and process services?
I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2011 I found myself filing paperwork at a law firm as I started to attend some classes at the College of Southern Nevada. My brother worked at this law firm – he was actually the one paying me to file paperwork and clean up some large files for some large cases that were going on. He had the idea of starting a process serving company, and I did not even know what one was.
Nevada is one of the very few states that require that someone have 4,000 hours of experience before they can even apply for a process serving license. When applying, you also have to show your tax returns, your W2s. They also require you to take a test and carry a certain amount of insurance. The reason I bring that up is because the process to take the license took some time. I worked under the direction of attorneys and a process serving company for two years to get my hours and experience, then applied for the license.
The private investigation licensing board reviewed my application after I had completed my hours. I was able to get my license and grow my business. The process serving job was very convenient while I was going to school. I was able to serve documents between classes, at odd times, after hours, etc. For many years I was either in class or serving documents. While I was attending business classes at the College of Southern Nevada, I was applying what I was learning in those classes to the business I was growing.
I later went to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and pursued a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. My journey followed the same suit: I was able to study business and business principles while growing my company and starting to hire employees as the workload got greater. I only worked by referral – I never did any advertising or made a website. The paralegals and attorneys I had done good work for referred me to colleagues in the business. In my junior year of my undergrad of business school, I made the decision to go to law school, and that same story continued.
While I was attending business classes at the College of Southern Nevada, I was applying what I was learning in those classes to the business I was growing.
I got married before I was accepted into Boyd School of Law in 2018, and my wife quit her job to come and work for me. She has been a great new addition to the business. In the first semester of law school, year one, it was a requirement to take Civil Procedure, so I learned more about the history of service of process and how that applied. Many of the law courses that I took, when it came to civil procedure or criminal procedure, I would apply and implement as I built my business. I took a Law Practice Management course in my first year of law school, and I have been able to apply and implement those principles too.
What is it that motivates you to achieve success for your clients?
Currently, my legal practice consists mostly of personal injury cases. There are many PI attorneys who value their relationship with medical providers more than they care about their own client. Additionally, PI attorneys in many instances will collect more money than their clients. Obviously, these sorts of practices are bad for clients, as well as the practice of law in general. As an attorney, I believe that the client’s needs come first. We are legal counsel and they entrust us with handling their case properly and diligently. Many times, a personal injury victim will need to speak to an attorney for the first time in their lives. It is our job, as attorneys, to make their experience as painless as possible while at the same time protecting their rights and obtaining compensation for their injuries. My philosophy as an attorney is to always put the client first and prioritise their needs above all else.
Clients also have a lot more going on than just the case that I am involved with, so taking that into consideration and giving them a benefit of the doubt is important to me.
What are your plans for developing your practice and your firm this year?
I have been in school and running my business for a decade. I am happy to report that we work with some of the best attorneys and litigators in Las Vegas. We have earned a very good reputation, so there is no shortage of work. Our business has been more profitable each year, and we are on track to achieve the same this year. My staff is the best and they have stood by my side while pursing my law school dream, so I am excited to make the business more profitable so that we can all be more successful.
I graduated from law school in May 2022 and passed the July 2022 Bar Exam on my first try. My intention for 2023 is to grow and develop my process serving business and do many things I have never done. I have never had a functioning website or logo – I have never done any paid advertising. I am in the process of tackling some of those things now to take my business to the next level.
Now that I am a licensed attorney, I have the ability to work on cases with the attorneys I previously referred them to, learning the trade and practice from some of the best in town. A benefit to my position as an attorney is having worked in the field for a decade, meaning that I am familiar with the litigators who are getting their clients great results, and now I get to work directly alongside them in family law, business litigation, contract law and other fields.
For the rest of 2023, I am going to continue to develop my business and branding while referring cases to other excellent attorneys in our area.
Nicholas Ohlson, Founder
9811 W. Charleston Blvd., 2-732, Las Vegas, NV 89117, USA
Tel: +1 702-209-2140 | +1 702-609-0113
Nicholas Ohlson is the founder, owner and operator of Serve Vegas. A graduate of UNLV Business School and Boyd Law School, and a Nevada-licensed attorney, Nick brings to bear over 10 years of experience in the legal process serving field. He has worked with some of the largest and most successful law firms in Las Vegas and has served documents on high-profile cases resulting in eight-figure verdicts.
Serve Vegas is a Las Vegas-based process serving agency. The Serve Vegas team prizes their dedication and reliability, and regularly go beyond process service by providing skip tracing, surveillance and other legal support services aimed at ensuring that clients are in prime position to get the best results. The firm operates a nationwide network of process servers through its affiliates and professional relationships, enabling clients’ papers to be delivered anywhere throughout the US.