How a Dispute Becomes a Lawsuit: The Complaint and Summons

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Problems related to the sheriff’s civil process duties most often arise because the process was improperly served, not served at all, or reflected an insufficient or inaccurate return. 

All civil actions, whether equitable or legal, are commenced by filing a complaint with the clerk of the appropriate court. Rules 3 and 4.01, Tenn. R. Civ. P. When the civil complaint, i.e., lawsuit, is filed, the clerk issues the required summons “forthwith.” As of July 1, 2005, a summons must be served within 90 days of the date issued, a far more relaxed rule than the prior limit of 30 days.

The summons is extraordinarily important. It gives the person to whom it is directed notice that he or she is being sued, explains the time limit within which an answer to the complaint must be filed, and warns the defendant that a default judgment will be rendered in the plaintiff’s favor if no answer is filed. Rule 4.03(1), Tenn. R. Civ. P.  Clearly, the consequences can be grave if the return indicates that summons was properly served when in fact it was not.

Rule 4 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure contains nine subsections and two addendums detailing the specific requirements for serving summons under nearly every imaginable circumstance, including, but not limited to, serving defendants within and outside the state, minors, incompetents, partnerships, corporations, the state or a state agency, the county or a municipality. Rule 4 also dictates requirements for personal service and service by mail, and mandates who is eligible to accept service in each eventuality.  It is also important to know whether a state statute exists regarding the method and means of proper service since the statute overrides the rules of civil procedure.