Wolfe v. Stevens, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 2891413 (Fla. 2d DCA Oct 05, 2007)

Florida is the largest recipient of state-to-state migration in the U.S.  Here are a few stats from State-to-State Migration Flows: 1995 to 2000, a U.S. census report:

Florida’s net domestic migration of 607,000, the largest of any state, came primarily from states in the Northeast, particularly New York, which had a net contribution of 238,000 to Florida. Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania also had substantial net outmigration to Florida.

Is it any wonder then that Florida probate proceedings often require service by publication when an individual cannot be located in Florida?

The linked-to case is instructive because it reports on a personal representative that got service by publication WRONG.  Which means we now all have a specific example of what NOT to do if we want to make our next attempted service by publication stick.

Here’s why the 2d DCA said the PR got it wrong:

Stevens, as personal representative of her mother’s estate, sued Wolfe alleging that he had defrauded their mother out of her home by falsifying Stevens’ and the mother’s signatures on a “Deed to Trust .” Approximately two months after filing suit, Stevens filed a sworn statement for constructive service pursuant to sections 49.031 and 49.041, Florida Statutes (2005), and subsequently served Wolfe by publication. Wolfe did not respond, and the trial court entered a default final judgment against him. Approximately seven months later, Wolfe moved to set aside the final judgment under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540 on the ground that service was defective because Stevens had failed to conduct a diligent search before resorting to service by publication. The trial court denied Wolfe’s motion finding that he had actual notice of the final judgment and that in failing to act diligently to set it aside, “he was not reasonable.”

“‘When a complainant resorts to constructive service, he should make an honest and conscientious effort, reasonably appropriate to the circumstances, to acquire the information necessary to fully comply with the controlling statutes, to the end that the defendant, if it be reasonably possible, may be accorded notice of the suit.’“ Gmaz v. King, 238 So.2d 511, 514 (Fla. 2d DCA 1970) (quoting Klinger v. Milton Holding Co., 186 So. 526, 534 (1939)). If constructive service is challenged on the ground that the plaintiff failed to conduct a diligent search, the trial court must determine whether the plaintiff “reasonably employed knowledge at his command, made diligent inquiry, and exerted an honest and conscientious effort appropriate to the circumstances, to acquire the information necessary to enable him to effect personal service on the defendant.” McDaniel v. McElvy, 108 So. 820, 831 (Fla.1926); see Gmaz, 238 So.2d at 514. Further, “when a ‘red flag’ is waved to a complainant notifying or warning him of facts which put him on a reasonable course of inquiry as to the whereabouts or residence of a party-defendant to his law suit, he is bound to follow that course to its logical end.” Id.

Stevens had notice of facts that she should have followed before resorting to service by publication. The record indicates that when Stevens filed her complaint she and her attorney knew that Wolfe was represented by counsel. However, instead of contacting Wolfe’s attorney regarding the lawsuit, Stevens filed an affidavit of diligent search and inquiry and proceeded to serve Wolfe by publication. At the hearing on Wolfe’s motion to set aside the final judgment, Stevens’ attorney admitted he had the address and phone number of Wolfe’s attorney and that he could have notified him of the lawsuit but he “made the decision, knowing all the circumstances regarding the accusations that were going back and forth, that I would rather go the statutory route.” Under these circumstances, we cannot conclude that Stevens exercised due diligence in attempting to locate Wolfe. Accordingly, service by publication was improper. See Levenson v. McCarty, 877 So.2d 818 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004) (holding that where the plaintiff made no attempt to contact the defendant by telephone or through his known attorneys, service by publication was improper); Torelli v. Travelers Indem. Co., 495 So.2d 837 (Fla. 3d DCA 1986) (holding that the plaintiff did not exercise due diligence in attempting to locate the defendant where she failed to follow an obvious lead to the defendant’s whereabouts by inquiring of the defendant’s known attorney).