Big Year for the Bad News Bearers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 1998; Page A1
Hurtling down a stretch of East Capitol Street at 55 mph, Ken Margolis is weaving his Honda through traffic and reflecting on the happiest, most frenetic 12 months of his working life.
Among the highlights: the time he met White House consultant James Carville, who graciously invited him into his Capitol Hill office to chat about sports. Then there was a visit to the home of former White House deputy chief of staff Harold M. Ickes, who came to the door wearing nothing but his underwear and a frown.
"Mr. Ickes seemed a little annoyed," Margolis recalled with a wry smile. "But he was a gentleman about it."
The Year of the Subpoena has produced few outright winners in Washington. But for process servers -- the men and women who hand-deliver legal papers -- 1998 was nirvana. They've enjoyed record paychecks and more work than they can handle, they say, as well as occasional brushes with Washington luminaries.
"It's been absolutely excellent," Margolis said, dashing toward a law firm to pick up his seventh summons of the day. "Everybody is suing everybody."
Washington is one of the world's process-serving capitals. Most litigation against the government is filed here, the town is crammed with lawyers, and the U.S. Marshals Service stopped serving legal papers years ago. Since then, dozens of private process servers have been crisscrossing the city every day, pocketing about $50 a pop.
The best in the business drive like Mario Andretti, snoop like Columbo and stalk like a repo man. A gift for subterfuge and a car trunk filled with costumes are a plus. Though most process serving is akin to routine courier work, some would-be defendants try to "duck the paper."
Then the job becomes a high-stakes game of tag -- and occasionally a dangerous one. Process servers are sometimes threatened, even attacked. Contrary to lore, however, servers don't need to actually touch or hand anything to their targets. To withstand a possible court challenge, servers must merely ensure that they have the right person and that the person realizes the papers have been delivered.
"You can drop it at their feet," said Terry Merrifield of Merrifield Associates. "I've done effective service sliding the paper under a door, as long as I know the person is on the other side of that door."
Negotiating skills can come in handy, too. Merrifield, for instance, once served business magnate Herbert Haft at his Washington mansion. As Merrifield tells it, when Haft saw Merrifield coming, he bolted toward the house.
"I said, 'Don't run, Herb, I don't want to chase you,' " Merrifield recalls. "He stopped, then asked if I would mind serving the papers directly to his lawyers. I asked for his lawyers' names. He couldn't remember them. So I was like, 'Herb, you've been served.' "
Hard data in this largely unregulated business are tough to find. In most states, as well as the District, there are no licensing or registration requirements; anyone over 18 can do it. The National Association of Professional Process Servers claims 1,300 member companies, but there are far more than that, the group's president, Alan Crowe, speculates.
As for the tally of papers served, nobody has a decent guess. There were 250,000 lawsuits filed in the federal court system in 1996, and 87.5 million civil and criminal cases in state courts, Crowe said. Some cases generate 40 subpoenas, some none at all.
A few lawsuits target the process servers themselves. Most commonly, people claim they were assaulted by over-aggressive servers, were the victims of obnoxious or illegal tactics, or weren't properly served. There are, of course, financial incentives to bend the rules and leave papers even when the intended recipient is nowhere in sight. Virtually everyone in the business has been sued or been asked to testify in a trial.
"It's usually our word against theirs," Merrifield said. "You end up building a reputation with the courts."
Process servers have played bit parts in Washington's latest scandal. Ickes, Carville, former Lewinsky confidante Linda Tripp and former White House aide George Stephanopoulos, for example, were among those subpoenaed by Judicial Watch, a conservative group suing the Clinton administration in more than a dozen actions.
The mere prospect of being served with a subpoena by Paula Jones's Washington legal team sent former Miss America Elizabeth Ward Gracen on a long and unscheduled trip to Las Vegas and the Caribbean. Gracen was eluding a subpoena from Jones's lawyers, who wanted to know whether Clinton had pressured her into a sexual relationship. The case was dismissed before they were able to find her.
Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's staff had most of its subpoenas delivered by FBI agents or its own messengers. At least one target consented to a more high-tech approach.
"I got my subpoena by fax," said Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. "You can't have process servers walking around the White House."
Dressing the Part For the hard cases, corporate and plaintiffs' lawyers call in the likes of Joel Kaplan, the owner of Action Investigative Services and a specialist in hunting the hard-to-serve.
Kaplan and his employees have donned some eye-catching get-ups over the years. There's the pizza-deliveryman outfit with its inevitable punch line, the subpoena in a pizza box -- one of the oldest tricks in the book. There's the matching brown pants, shirt and baseball cap, a United Parcel Service uniform knockoff. (Most servers are careful to wear close approximations of such uniforms rather than the real thing, to avoid litigation.) Sometimes a priest's collar with a black shirt does the trick.
"You knock on someone's door at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning and you look like Guido Sarducci," Kaplan said, referring to the Italian-priest character on the old "Saturday Night Live."
For those who won't answer their door, there's the confrontational approach. Kaplan says he has backed tow trucks into driveways, rousting nervous car owners, and has yanked out a house's electrical meter, causing an instant blackout.
"They come running out the door," Kaplan said. "They don't know what the hell happened."
Kaplan acknowledges that this is probably illegal. But it might be preferable to another of his favorite techniques.
"I'll go to the front door and say: 'Look, I saw your ugly face staring out the window. You can either come out here and get it or I'll go get the megaphone and scream at you,' " Kaplan said.
Other tactics employed by veteran servers:
They wait till the target is halfway between the car and the house. That way the person doesn't know which way to run.
They address their targets by first name. It defuses the situation.
They send women in miniskirts.
"Our female agents have done very well," said David Frizelle of U.S. Process Service. "If you need to serve a man and another company has tried to serve him with a pimply 18-year-old kid, then you're going to have an advantage by sending an attractive lady in high heels."
Kaplan of Action Investigative, who has used these and other tricks of the trade, suffers few pangs of conscience.
"Does a cop feel bad for giving you a ticket at the airport when you've been sitting in your car for four minutes?" he asked. "It's a job. Everybody has a job."
The Calling Ken Margolis would be considered a by-the-book type if the business had a book. A burly 36-year-old in black cowboy boots, he began this career soon after his family sold the gourmet food business where he'd worked for more than a decade. One afternoon, a process server showed up to slap his father with a lawsuit. Margolis, seeking a new calling, was intrigued.
"Out of the blue, I called up this guy who owned a process company and said I'd like to give this a shot," Margolis recalled. "The next week he handed me a stack of paper and said, 'Go serve.' "
That was five years ago. Margolis has since been knocking on doors, bluffing his way past security guards and sweet-talking secretaries across the Washington area. Nobody is particularly happy to see him, and he's physically threatened almost every month. Not long ago, a Capitol Heights resident threatened to shoot him.
On a recent afternoon, Margolis demonstrates his methods. First stop is Fort McNair, where he seeks out a man being sued for $7,000 in an Illinois court. Puffing after climbing three flights of stairs in an office building, Margolis pokes his head into a few rooms until he locates his quarry and quickly hands off the documents.
"Take them back," the man replies acidly after skimming the papers.
Margolis declines and rushes back to his Honda. He earns $27 for each document he delivers, and on a good day he crams in as many as 20 deliveries. The hard part is finding the "kitty cats," as he calls avoiders, and legal parking spots. He racked up so many parking tickets in his last car -- $7,000 worth -- that he abandoned it the day police strapped on a Denver boot.
After a speedy drive across the city, he's taking the elevator to the third floor of Superior Court Building A. There, he finds the office of a court-appointed therapist and pounds a little too hard on her door.
"You scared the liver out of me," she says, amiably accepting a subpoena.
Margolis apologizes, hops in the car and scoots to Northeast. After a failed effort to find a detective, he strikes unexpected pay dirt with a visit to the home of a Washington lawyer being dunned by a court-reporting company. The company contends the lawyer failed to pay $600 in transcription services.
"I'm not going to jump off a roof or do something stupid to avoid you," says the lawyer in a Caribbean accent, signing for the documents and grimacing.
That's a relief. In November, Margolis was trying without success to serve a man named Ivin L. Pointer. One day, he finally spotted him on, of all places, the evening news. Pointer was threatening to leap off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, causing police to shut the bridge down and backing up traffic for five hours.
"That was the end of that case," Margolis says.
It's now 2:30, but he isn't thinking about lunch. A former gambling addict, Margolis is unabashedly hooked on the action, and once he strings together a few successes, food breaks are off the agenda. There are at least 10 subpoenas left in his back seat, and his boss tells him via cell phone that a rush job awaits him in a downtown law firm. He heads toward Southeast for a quick delivery, then points his car toward K Street NW and floors it.
"We're on a roll," he says. "If we stop, we'll cool off."
Margolis's modus operandi tends toward the straightforward, but he's not above subtle deceptions, such as carrying FedEx boxes into offices. The most memorable trick he can recall, though, was one played on him. A woman called him last year and said, "Ken, I hear you're a great process server."
"I was like, 'Really? Who referred you?' She said, 'I can't remember, but come up to Gaithersburg tomorrow morning and I'll give you some papers to serve.' "
When Margolis got there, the woman greeted him at the door -- with a lawsuit. He was being sued by a teacher who claimed that Margolis embarrassed her when he showed up at school with a notice that her wages were being garnisheed. The case was eventually dropped.
"Bam," remembers Margolis, "she slapped it right on me. That case cost me 900 bucks."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company