Never Use a Private/Commercial "Post-Office" Box: Especially if You Want to Avoid Service
Many people in Los Angeles County use privately owned and commercially leased "post office" boxes (not to be confused with the more common United States Postal Service box). The box comes with a street address, which a person may use instead of their box number. A prestigious address explains why these services are so popular in some areas, such as private mailbox rental in Beverly Hills.
Another reason people use these private mail facilities is because they erroneously believe they have less of a chance at being served with a lawsuit and/or legal process papers. In less than 900 words, this blog will quickly show you why these people are mistaken - - and ironically - - how these people actually become a much easier target for service of a lawsuit.
A distinction is apt: absent a court order, under no circumstances may you properly substitute serve a lawsuit on your opponent's United States issued Post Office Box; however, there is an exception when the mailing box is privately owned. (Ellard v. Conway (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 540) (Conway); see Cd. Civ. Proc. § 415.20(b).)
In Conway, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, division 3, rejected Larry and Marilyn Conway's ("the Conways") argument that because they were not properly served, their motion to vacate the default judgment against them was denied in error. The Conways received their mail at the "Postal Annex" through a private and/or commercial post office box - - not at a United States Postal Service post office box.
The process server went to the Postal Annex to serve the Conways, and spoke with the Postal Annex manager who told him the Conways received their mail there. The process server left the summons and complaint with the manager as "substitute service." Later that same day, the process server mailed a copy of the summons and complaint to the Conways at the Postal Annex address.
The Conways made a fairly compelling argument - - they argued the substitute service was improper because, among other things, California Code of Civil Procedure section 415.20 does not authorize substitute service on a private and/or commercial post office box. (Cd. Civ. Proc. § 415.20(b) ["a summons may be served […] other than a United States Postal Service post office box…."]) (emph. added).
The Fourth Appellate District, Justice O'Leary writing a unanimous decision, acknowledged "there are no California cases addressing whether substitute service at a private/commercial post office box is proper…." (Conway, supra, p. 402.) The Court was therefore compelled to draw upon federal jurisprudence. (citing Burrows v. City of League Cit., Texas (S.D. Tex. 1997) 985 F. Supp. 704) (Burrows).
In Burrows, the court held the language of the California statute was clear, and if the legislature intended that service be effective only at mailing addresses other than any post office box, it would have simply omitted the descriptive language "United States Postal Service" preceding "post office box." (Id., 706.)
Critical are a few things, which may change the outcome in your case. First, the Conways leased the private/commercial post office box and notified the US Postal Service it was their forwarding address - - making it their "usual mailing address." Second, and arguably the most critical key fact, substitute service was not available at any other address or on any other individual. Third, the process server first attempted to serve the Conways at their address in Anaheim Hills, but the guard told him the Conways had moved away.
It is still controlling case law today that California Code of Civil Procedure section 415.20, subdivision (b) authorizes substitute service on defendants at their private post office box. (see e.g., Sweeting v. Murat (2013) 221 Cal. App. 4th 507, 513 ["service at a private or commercial post office box is allowed"] [citing Conway, supra]; see also e.g., Hearn v. Howard (2009) 177 Cal. App. 4th 1193.)
Additionally, in 2017, the California legislature introduced Assembly Bill 1093, which proposed to allow service of process on private mailboxes to be effectuated on the first attempt - - but if and only if - - the only address reasonably known for the subject is said mailbox. Subdivision (c) of California Code of Civil Procedure section 415.20 became effective January 1, 2018, as follows:
"Notwithstanding subdivision (b), if the only address reasonably known for the person to be served is a private mailbox obtained through a commercial mail receiving agency, service of process may be effected on the first delivery attempt by leaving a copy of the summons and complaint with the commercial mail receiving agency in the manner described in subdivision (d) of Section 17538.5 of the Business and Professions Code."
(see also, Bus. Prof. Cd. § 17538.5(d) [requiring written assent that the commercial facility may accept service of process before a private box may be rented].)
Therefore, the statute appears to have narrowed the holding of Conway, supra, making it applicable only in situations where no other addresses are known or could be discovered with reasonable diligence.
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Patrick Santos has been a California attorney since 2009.