Service by Mail and Non-Party Medical Requests

Is Service by U.S. Mail Enough for a Georgia Court to Have Jurisdiction over a Doctor in an Auto Accident Case?

A medical practice recently challenged the trial court’s denial of its motion to set aside an order granting a motorist’s motion to compel it to fully respond to her discovery requests in an auto accident case. At issue was whether, as a nonparty to the underlying lawsuit, service of the motion to compel via regular U.S. mail was sufficient to obtain personal jurisdiction over it.

Personal jurisdiction or in personam jurisdiction is a court’s power over a person (or entity) who’s a party to or involved in a case before the court—including the court’s power to render judgments affecting that person’s rights.


The medical practice had offices in Lawrenceville, and the plaintiff was a patient there. In 2020, the plaintiff sued another driver for injuries that he sustained in an auto accident. The defendant driver then send out a non-party request wherein he sought to obtain the plaintiff’s medical records from the  medical practice under OCGA § 9-11-34(c)(2), which provides that requests for medical records may be served upon a nonparty “who is a practitioner of the healing arts or hospital or healthcare facility[.]” However, it’s important to note that the statute does not specify the way in which service on such a nonparty must be made.

On July 31, 2020, the defendant’s attorney mailed a records request to the medical practice via regular U.S. mail. When he received no response, the attorney used regular U.S. mail to send a follow-up letter 18 months later, again requesting the medical records and threatening to file a motion to compel. Both letters were sent to the practice’s Lawrenceville office, addressed simply to the medical practice, “Attn: Records Custodian.”

The medical practice had no record of receiving 2020 request, but the January 2021 request was routed to an employee who maintained some of the practice’s medical records. Apparently, without consulting her supervisor or anyone with authority, she responded to the document request by sending “the usual set of records typically produced” upon receipt of such a request. And while those documents included all of the records the employee could access, it didn’t fully satisfy the defendant driver’s document request.

In May 2021, the defendant’s attorney again used regular U.S. mail to notify the medical practice that its response to the document request was incomplete. This letter was also addressed to the Records Custodian at the medical practice. However, according to the practice, it had no record of receiving this letter.

In September 2021, the defendant filed a motion to compel and a request for sanctions against the medical practice. The certificate of service reflected that the motion was served via regular U.S. mail by sending a copy to the medical practice at the Lawrenceville address. In November 2021, the trial court issued a rule nisi and scheduled a hearing on the defendant’s motion to compel. This is a Latin phrase where the ruling of a court becomes final unless one or both parties show cause for it not to be.

This filing was also sent via regular U.S. mail and addressed to the medical practice.

The Trial Court Grants the Motion

The trial court granted the motion to compel and noted that the medical practice failed to appear at the hearing. The order gave the medical practice 30 days to produce the requested documents and awarded the defendant $547.50 in attorney fees to be paid within 30 days. The certificate of service attached to the order showed it was served via regular U.S. mail on the medical practice at the Lawrenceville address.

When received, the order on the motion to compel was routed to a second medical-records clerk. She sent a response to the defendant’s attorney via certified mail, return receipt requested. She hand-wrote on the response that “records and bills were sent already. Payments [for copying the documents were] received as well. See attached certifications, per your request.” Enclosed were two notarized certificates that authenticated the previously sent medical records. According to the medical practice, like the clerk before her, she didn’t consult with a supervisor before sending this response. Also, she also failed to realize the defendant’s document request encompassed medical records that her department didn’t maintain.

In January 2022, the defendant filed a motion for contempt against the medical practice. The certificate of service noted that the motion was served on the practice  by sending a copy via regular U.S. mail, addressed to the medical practice. Three days later, the trial court issued a rule nisi scheduling a contempt hearing. The certificate of service for this document stated that a notice of the hearing was sent via regular U.S. mail addressed to the medical practice.

The trial court entered found the medical practice in contempt for failure to comply with its December 2021 order granting the defendant’s motion to compel. The order required the medical practices to comply fully with the December order, awarded an additional $550 in attorney fees to the defendant driver, and imposed a fine of $1,000 per day for “each day that passed” until the medical practice fully complied with the trial court’s orders.

The practice learned of the contempt proceedings in February 2022, when the plaintiff’s attorney called its CEO to advise him of the proposed contempt order. The next day, after the order was entered, the defendant’s attorney sent a copy of it to the practices’ CEO via certified mail, return receipt requested. The medical practice subsequently filed a motion to set aside the orders granting the defendant’s motion to compel and finding them in contempt of court.

The trial court denied the motion, and the medical practice appealed.

The Medical Practice Appeals

The practice argued that the trial court erred in failing to set aside the order of contempt because service of the motion for contempt and the related rule nisi did not comport with the standards for due process or Georgia law. In a second but related enumeration of error, the medical practice asserts the trial court erred in granting the motion to compel, underlying rule nisi, and underlying requests for production of documents when service of those items did not comport with the standards for due process or Georgia law.

Presiding Judge Stephen Dillard of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote that the U.S., Supreme Court has held that the Due Process Clause requires every method of service to provide “‘notice reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.’” Similarly, the Supreme Court of Georgia explained that “whether a proceeding is in rem or in personam, due process requires that a chosen method of service be reasonably certain to give actual notice of the pendency of a proceeding to those parties whose liberty or property interests may be adversely affected by the proceeding.”

Importantly, when contempt is sought against a nonparty under Georgia law, Judge Dillard  said that the contempt action is initiated by the filing of a motion and the issuance of a rule nisi. And the rule nisi must be served upon the alleged contemnor, so as to provide him with notice of both the allegations and his scheduled opportunity to be heard. In a contempt case against a nonparty, then, the “rule nisi is the summons which is to be served on the [respondent] giving him notice of the charges and the opportunity to be heard at a specified time and place.” In other words, for the trial court to obtain personal jurisdiction over the nonparty, the nonparty must be served with some form of summons or the equivalent of it, the judge opined.

In light of this, with respect to a motion filed against a nonparty, the rule nisi was the equivalent of a summons, so logic dictates that—given the foregoing constitutional and precedential backdrop—it must be served using the same method required for service of process. And with respect to an LLC, such as the medical practice, Georgia law provides:

A limited liability company’s registered agent is the limited liability company’s agent for service of process, notice, or demand required or permitted by law to be served on the limited liability company. If a limited liability company has no registered agent or the agent cannot with reasonable diligence be served, the limited liability company may be served by registered or certified mail or statutory overnight delivery, return receipt requested, addressed to the limited liability company at its principal office.

Accordingly, state law didn’t permit service on the medical practice of the motion to compel, the motion for contempt, or the rule nisi that accompanied each by regular U.S. mail. As a result, without proper service, the trial court was without jurisdiction either to compel the medical practice to produce the requested documents or to hold the practice in contempt.

Due Process

Finally, in circumstances involving a nonparty, treating the rule nisi as the equivalent of a summons for purposes of service also comports with the dictates of due process, the judge explained. Whenever notice is required to be given in a judicial proceeding, due process requires that it be “such notice as is reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to enable the interested parties to protect their rights.” Specifically, to comport with due process, notice must be “reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections,” and the notice “must be of such a nature as reasonably to convey the required information.” Here, Judge Dillard found that sending the motions and accompanying rule nisi via regular U.S. mail did not satisfy the requirements of due process.

As such, the Court of Appeals ruled that  the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter orders compelling the medical practice to respond to the defendant driver’s discovery requests and holding it in contempt. Moreover, even assuming the trial court had jurisdiction over the medical practice, the notices provided to it of the defendant driver’s motions and the accompanying hearings were insufficient to satisfy the requirements of due process.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s denial of the medical practice’s motion to set aside was an abuse of discretion that must be reversed. Ga. Pain & Wellness Ctr. v. Hatchett, 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 244 (Ga. App. June 5, 2023).

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