When is a Summons and Complaint “Unclaimed” Under Tennessee Law?

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion dealing with a circumstance when service of process was designed “unclaimed” by the U.S. Postal Service. In Goodman v. Ocunmola, No. E2014-00045-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 4, 2014), wife sued husband for divorce and served husband with a summons and complaint through the Tennessee Secretary of State because husband lived in Kentucky. The Postal Service attempted to deliver the summons and complaint, sent via certified mail, on three separate occasions before returning the certified mail as “unclaimed.” Wife moved for and was granted a default judgment when husband failed to appear and respond to the complaint.

About a month later, husband moved to set aside the default judgment entered against him, arguing that wife intentionally failed to include husband’s apartment number on the address label for the process server (i.e., the Postal Service), with the goal of obtaining a default judgment due to husband’s failure to respond to the complaint. Husband claimed he found out about the default judgment when he discovered a letter from wife’s attorney in the trash bin by his mailbox, which he assumed was thrown away because its address label also did not include husband’s apartment number. The trial court denied husband’s request to set aside the default judgment, and husband appealed.

The appellate record didn’t include a transcript or statement of the evidence, which the court initially noted had “frustrated” its review of husband’s appeal. As for the merits of the appeal, the court observed that Tenn. R. Civ. P. 4.05 states “the United States Postal Service notation that a properly addressed registered or certified letter is “unclaimed,” or other similar notation, is sufficient evidence of the defendant’s refusal to accept delivery.” Unfortunately for husband’s appeal, the limited record was basically reduced to the fact that after making three attempts to serve the summons and complaint, the Postal Service declared the certified mail as “unclaimed.” Contrary to husband’s suggestion that the lack of an apartment number inhibited service of process, the certified mail containing the summons and complaint was not found in a trash can near the mailbox (like the letter from wife’s attorney) or returned as undeliverable because the address was insufficient. Instead the notice contained the husband’s correct name and correct apartment complex address, and the “unclaimed” designation by the Postal Service was sufficient to effectuate proper service. Accordingly, the court of appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying husband’s motion to set aside the default judgment.