He’s grumpy. But he calls the shots. Not some smart-mouthed fellow from out of town.

It’s pretty routine that a client (always someone from a law firm– lawyer, paralegal, or assistant) asks “okay, Aaron, what documents do you need to serve these guys?”

My response is always, “you tell me.”

They ask a completely reasonable question, but it’s based on unfamiliarity with the Hague Service Convention more than anything.  Frankly, I’m glad that not everybody has a complete understanding of the treaty and its application, or I wouldn’t be doing what I do, but I hope this clears up any doubt:

Hague Service Convention doctrine only governs how documents are served– not what documents are served.

With one exception,* the Convention addresses manner– not content.

The “what” question is determined by the rules of the court hearing the case.

To illustrate, let’s say you file a case in federal court in Kansas City (W.D. Mo.).  You have two local defendants in KC, one in Chicago, and one in Geneva, Switzerland.  Setting aside the fact that everybody is obliged to waive [including the Swiss defendant], the same documents have to go to everybody.

  • The summons?  Of course.
  • Complaint?  You bet.
  • Exhibits?  Absolutely.  They’re part of the complaint.
  • Civil Cover Sheet?  Hmmmm… maybe, maybe not.
  • ADR Program Guide?  I don’t think so.  Could be, possibly?
  • Judge Chamberlain Haller‘s Rules of Civility?  Depends on His Honor’s mood, which is usually sour.  Let’s face it– he’s a grumpy bastard until he verifies your admission to the bar and figures out that you’re not wearing that ridiculous tuxedo out of disrespect.  And even then…

Well, what say the rules?  Serving certain things as a matter of common practice doesn’t make it mandatory to serve them.

Rule 4 is pretty succinct:  A summons must be served with a copy of the complaint.  [That’s 4(c)(1).]  An exhaustive list there.  It does not specify the CCS, ADR guide, individual judges’ rules, or any other documents.  Summons, complaint, period [just remember– exhibits are part of the complaint].   But look to local rules to see what ancillary documents, if any, are required (this is especially dicey at the state level).  Regardless of forum, I can’t tell you what has to be served.  That’s up to you to determine.

Back to our illustration… W.D. Mo. Local Rules don’t mention anything extra (at least, I don’t see anything there), so the summons & complaint are sufficient.  Even if Judge Haller is a grumpy bastard, he’s a stickler for the rule book, as a certain Mr. Gambini of Brooklyn found out the hard way.**

But let’s say the case was filed in a different district, or maybe state court.  Again, look to that specific court’s rules to determine what else is necessary.  Then, recognize that if you have to serve X, Y, and Z on a U.S. defendant, you also have to serve X, Y, and Z on an overseas defendant.  Your guy in Switzerland?  He gets the same papers as the guys in Kansas City and Chicago.  With a catch: not only do you have to request service via the proper Swiss Central Authority (the Tribunal de première instance in Geneva), you have to translate everything into French, regardless of the defendant’s competence in English; and elsewhere in Switzerland, it might be German or Italian.  The lesson to bear in mind there?  Brevity is the soul of wit, counselor.  So keep it short.

The bottom line:  again, Hague doctrine governs how documents are served.  Not what documents are served.  But that simplifies things quite a bit.


* One huge, glaring exception:  subpoenas– which aren’t even truly addressed in the Service Convention, because they aren’t really covered by the Service Convention.  Subpoenas cannot be served abroad– at least not with coercive effect.  Instead, the Hague Evidence Convention controls, and that can be a sticky wicket for a U.S. lawyer seeking to compel production in another country.  See here for Three Cardinal Rules applicable to evidence compulsion.

** Yes, yes.  That was all about a criminal trial in Alabama state court.  Let’s just pretend Judge Haller moved to Kansas City and got bumped to the federal bench and sits primarily on the civil docket, m’kay?  [Over the past decade, UMKC’s CLE office has presented a My Cousin Vinny seminar at least four times.  It is far & away the most popular “Film & the Law” seminar in any year it pops up.  With very good reason.]