Ring, Ring, “Law Office.”
Hello. Yeah, uh, this is probably a stupid question, but, um, I got some legal papers here, someone gave ’em to me, but, they got my name on there, but, there’s no court file number listed. It’s just blank. So, like, this is fake, right? I mean, it’s just another scam, or fraud, or something. But it ain’t real with no court number on there, is it?
A common question from a potential client not realizing they were just served with a real lawsuit in Minnesota state court.
Yeah, I gotta question for ya. My client was served with papers down here from some lawyer in Minnesota. But they haven’t filed it, see?. So, we figure, the attorney is just trying to scare us. Bluffing. I’m not planning on answering it, ‘cause, ya know, there isn’t a file number to file it with. Does this sound right to you? They’re just hoping we’ll pay and don’t really wanna litigate, ya know?
–A common question from an out of state lawyer with a client being sued in Minnesota state court.
(Court File No.: __________)
People are always bewildered to hear in Minnesota we can sue someone without filing anything with the state court. All it takes is for an attorney to draft, sign and serve a summons on a defendant (with a complaint) to start a lawsuit.
It can be confusing. If you don’t think it is real without a court file number printed on it, think again, before it becomes a default judgment (with a Court File Number and dollar amount on it). And don’t bother calling the court. There will not be a record of it there. The court will have no idea A lawsuit was commenced, because the lawsuit began when the summons was served and the court was not involved. This is commonly known as “hip pocket service,” despite some legal commentators calling it “hip pocket filing.”
Minn. R. Civ. P. 3.01(a) and its Origins
Under Rule 3.01(a) of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure, “A civil action is commenced against each defendant . . . when the summons is served.” Compare that to what Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides: “A civil action is commenced by filing with the court.” A small difference in wording, with a large impact on when a lawsuit begins.
Our current Rule 3 was a statute in Minnesota as early as 1866, when actions at law and equity were merged so that only one procedural type of civil action existed. Minn. Gen. Stat. ch. 66 (1866)(Minn. Stat. Ann. § 540.01 superseded by Rules); and Bond v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 124 Minn. 195, 144 N.W. 942 (1914)(discussing this history).
Minnesota’s statutes progeny began in 1851 when we were still a territory and continued after Minnesota became the 32nd state in 1858. Id. In the 1866 version of Minnesota’s Rule 3, it was spread out among two sections. See Section 13 and 14, c. 66, G. S. 1866. The two sections were combined into one through the 1905 revisions to Minnesota’s statutes (Revised Laws). See Section 4102, R. L. 1905.
Can’t Find My Pocket?
I searched but could not find “hip pocket service” or “hip pocket filing” used by a Minnesota appellate court, although it is used by the advisory committee in comments to Rule 12 of the General Rules of Practice in 2009. Suffice it to say the procedure has been around a long time. I will leave the exact origin of the affectionately used slang term a mystery for now.
Only North and South Dakota have the same procedure as Minnesota. In some other states you can serve a summons before filing, but the case must be filed shortly after service is complete (from a little over a week to a few months later). The majority of states follow the federal rule and require you to file (and pay the fee) to start a lawsuit.
Effect of Not Filing
Pocket service can save you from immediately paying the filing fee for a lawsuit. This is nothing to scuff at with the filing fees for a civil action at about $325.00, unless you want a jury, then add on another $102.00. Other benefits are significant and be attractive for many cases.
After service (about $60 to $100), you have an active lawsuit not under court supervision and no court-imposed deadlines apply, but you can engage in discovery and the case can proceed with all of the civil procedure rules applying. Not filing can be beneficial in settling cases early with less expense. Sometimes it can be abused by a plaintiff with a weak case looking for a nuisance value settlement. But still not without a counterbalance: A defendant can file the case at anytime too.. As defense counsel, I’ve filed first many times to call a plaintiff’s apparent bluff.
Since the case is not filed, there is no way to count how many lawsuits are actually are pending. If a suit is timely served, it could have remained pending indefinitely. In 2011, it was estimated (guestimated) by collection attorneys (usually suing people for credit card debt) that 50,000 un-filed consumer credit cases had been served in the state while the Great Recession was ongoing.
That was more than twice as many as the collection law firms had filed. When New York ended hip pocket filing in the early ‘90s, it saw court filings swell by about 20%. The number of un-filed cases in Minnesota is unknown a
nd unknowable, but it’s a safe bet there are more than a few and maybe a lot more.
A great benefit of hip pocket service is it allows a lawsuit to be filed without being publicly disclosed. I worked on one case where it was about 6-7 years from the time it was served and neither party had any desire to file it. They were not interested in a public airing of their grievance.
They were both professionals and one of them had transmitted a loathsome disease to the other. They each had claims accusing one another of spreading the pre-existing condition to each other. Maybe it was a mutual infection? The case sat at a stalemate and lingered. I tried to find a way as a law clerk to resolve it, but could not dismiss it without filing it with the court for the whole world to see. That was not acceptable. As far as I know, that case may still be out there pending, and has been for about 20 years by now.
2013 Amendments to Rules 3.01 & 5.04
Effective July 1, 2013, Rule 3.01 was amended and now requires all cases to be filed within one year after they were served. Rule 5.04 deems a case dismissed with prejudice (the case over and can never be started again) if is not filed within a year. Perhaps as a nod to privacy, the parties can waive the one year limit and keep the case active indefinitely.
For all of the older pending cases, the clock began to run on the effective date and the one year limit is up July 1, 2014. If not filed, your case will be automatically dismissed and you can never bring the same claim again. Great news for defendants, not so much for the tardy or absent minded plaintiff.
An Exception to Every Rule
If you have a real good reason, act promptly, have a legitimate claim and it won’t be too unfair to the person being sued, Minn. R. Civ. P. 60 may work to reopen a dismissed case. But don’t count on Rule 60 saving the case if you were negligent, inexcusably tardy, have a questionable case and/or the defendant will be at a disadvantage. It should be used only when these factors are present.
Time to Review
It will be interesting to see how many old cases are filed in June, especially how many are filed the last week of the month. I am sure we will hear about the numbers once they are in and I may post them here after I do. In the meantime, make sure you review all of your cases served before July 1, 2013 and get them filed ASAP or keep your head low and hope the clock runs out on any claims outstanding and un-filed. Right now, I need to go inventory my older files.