Attorneys filing collections cases in Indianapolis say they’re at their wits’ end trying to determine whether summonses have been served on defendants long after cases have been opened.
“There’s been an almost complete breakdown at the Marion County Clerk’s Office regarding the posting of certified mail notice,” said attorney Fred Pfenninger. In some cases, he’s had to wait up to two months to learn whether a defendant in a collections case received notice of a lawsuit.
“This is a major problem,” he said. “I just want the system to work, and the system is not working right now.”
“Something that would appear on the surface to be so simplistic inexplicably has been made arduous, and it’s sad,” said Indianapolis lawyer Richard B. Gonon. He said the delays are disconcerting and create a prejudicial impact for his clients in terms of time and money spent on cases.
In early November, Gonon said he was still waiting for mail confirmation for a summons sent in mid-August. “It’s incomprehensible to me. … For 32 years I’ve been practicing law, and in recent times, this is a unique negative experience with the system.
“I don’t know what’s going on. It’s an enigma to me.”
Russell Hollis, deputy director of the Marion County Clerk’s Office, said certified mail notices are sent out from the clerk’s office within two days of filing. But the problem attorneys cite is the time it takes for confirmation of receipt or return of mail to show up on chronological case summaries, or to obtain confirmation of service from the clerk’s office.
“We are contemplating changes we can make to better allow attorneys to track their certified mail,” Hollis said. He said the clerk’s office posts updates to the CCS within 24 to 48 hours of the receipt of certified mail return cards.
Pfenninger and Gonon said the delays are harming their business. Gonon said a reasonable time for confirmation of service via certified mail, or return of certified mail, is typically about two to three weeks. “For whatever reason, or for bureaucratic obstacles, it’s taking two to three times longer than that.”
Both attorneys began noticing a slowdown about six months ago, but they say it appears to be a problem primarily in Marion County.
Service of process to a defendant via certified mail sent from the clerk’s office is a cost included in the $156 civil collection case filing fee. But Pfenninger said delays in the posting of service confirmation have led some dissatisfied lawyers to take additional steps such as separately sending duplicate certified mail notices, an extra cost passed on to clients and extra work for law offices.
“I’m on a schedule where every 30 days I report to a client what’s going on, and I don’t have anything to tell them” because of trouble obtaining service confirmation, Pfenninger said. “I’m on the hot seat.”
An alternative to certified mail notice is service by sheriff, but the cost of that service increased on July 1 from $13 to $25 on top of filing fees. Additionally, sheriffs now may charge another $25 for post-judgment service, a new fee the Legislature approved this year. The extra money goes toward underfunded pension programs.
Randolph County Clerk Laura Martin is a vice president of the Association of Clerks of Circuit Courts of Indiana. She said clerks have noticed an increase in use of certified mail rather than service by sheriff, particularly post-judgment, since the new $25 fee was enacted.
Martin said in Randolph County, certified mail confirmation is posted to the CCS the same day it’s received in the office, but there’s no best-practices standard for how long it should take for confirmation to be posted.
“There are 92 different clerks out there, and probably every one of them does something different on everything,” she said. “It really goes by what your court wants.”
Pfenninger said he encouraged the Marion County Clerk’s Office to follow the example of Hamilton County, where the certified mail tracking number is posted on the CCS when the mail is sent out. This allows lawyers to track mail and verify service independently.
Gonon said he also talked to representatives of the clerk’s office about the problem, but with no resolution. “It was left in a nebulous, ambiguous place.”
Clients, he said, are suffering a direct pecuniary and property impact on their interests because of the delays, and they put him in a difficult position. “It’s created a blemish through no fault of my own, so it’s frustrating.
“Please, powers out there that be, rectify the problem. It just makes us look bad, that’s all,” Gonon said.•