Articles are flying around the internet about New York Justice Matthew Cooper’s decision that Facebook is an acceptable alternative method for Ellanora Arthus Baidoo to serve her husband.
According to court documents, Ms. Baidoo’s husband “has no fixed address and no place of employment.” More, “[h]e has also refused to make himself available to be served with divorce papers” and the “post office has no forwarding address for him, there is no billing address linked to his prepaid cell phone, and the Department of Motor Vehicles has no record of him.”
According to Ms. Baidoo’s attorney, Andrew Spinnell, “We tried everything, including hiring a private detective — and nothing.” As a result, Justice Cooper ruled that Ms. Baidoo was “granted permission serve defendant with the divorce summons using a private message through Facebook.” “This transmittal shall be repeated by plaintiff’s attorney to defendant once a week for three consecutive weeks or until acknowledged” by the Defendant husband. “Additionally, after the initial transmittal, plaintiff and her attorney are to call and text message defendant to inform him that the summons for divorce has been sent to him via Facebook.”
(Predictably, CNN could not reach Ms. Baidoo’s husband for comment.)
So, could a Connecticut court ever follow New York’s lead and rule that service by Facebook is acceptable?
Typically, when a spouse’s whereabouts are known and he or she lives in Connecticut, a state marshal will personally serve upon him or her the papers which begin a dissolution of marriage (the writ, summons and complaint). (If requested, the marshal will attempt to avoid inconveniencing or embarrassing the spouse being served.)
However, Connecticut law allows spouses to proceed with a divorce even if they do not know the current address of their spouse. According to Connecticut Practice Book Sec. 25-28:
Order of Notice (a) On a complaint for dissolution of marriage . . . when the whereabouts of the adverse party are unknown to the plaintiff or the applicant, any judge or clerk of the court may make such order of notice as he or she deems reasonable. . . . Such notice having been given and proved, the judicial authority may hear the complaint or the application if it finds that the adverse party has actually received notice that the complaint or the application is pending. If actual notice is not proved, the judicial authority in its discretion may hear the case or continue it for compliance with such further order of notice as it may direct. (Emphasis added.)
Since the judge or clerk “may make such order of notice as he or she deems reasonable,” it is conceivable that a Connecticut judge may one day consider notice by Facebook “reasonable.” A main objective of the notice requirement is that the defendant is actually aware of the divorce and has the opportunity to present his or her case. Justice Cooper required that Ms. Baidoo prove the Facebook account belonged to her husband, and that he consistently logged on to the account and would therefore see the summons. This provision makes sense, given Justice Cooper’s likely goal that her husband have actual notice of Ms. Baidoo’s petition for divorce.
After a divorce plaintiff has successfully proven to the court that he or she cannot locate his or her spouse — and that all reasonable efforts to find him or her have failed, a Connecticut court might grant his or her request to proceed with the divorce by giving notice through publication in a newspaper. The court may require that the petitioning spouse publish the notice once a week for two successive weeks in a newspaper where the missing spouse is likely to be living, or his or her last known address.
(Note that although a divorce may be granted following service of notice by publication in a newspaper, the petitioning spouse may not be able to obtain other court orders — such as those for alimony — without giving personal notice to their spouse.)
Arguably, one day a Connecticut court could decide that an active Facebook page is a more likely place to obtain a spouse’s “actual” notice than is a legal notice in a newspaper.
As Justice Matthew Cooper reasoned, the “advent and ascendency of social media,” means sites like Facebook and Twitter are the “next frontier” as “forums through which a summons can be delivered.”