Justices find suit notice lacking
Tennessee man sent email in case
An email notification of a lawsuit was not enough to allow a circuit judge to rule against a Tennessee man and his efforts to draw attention to the “suspicious” death of his Arkansas niece.
On Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of James Steward Jr., who received an email last year from Internet media company YouTube that it was pulling down a video of his because of a court order.
The justices agreed with arguments by Steward’s attorneys that their client was never properly served with the lawsuit and, thus, a subsequent ruling against him could not stand.
The ruling reversed the Oct. 31, 2013, ruling by Benton County Circuit Judge Xollie Duncan, which threw out Steward’s appeal of a default judgment that barred him from, among other things, using the Internet to suggest that his niece’s former boyfriend caused the woman’s death.
In February 2009, Fort Smith police found Sarah Fennell unconscious, along with Adam Kuettel, and took her to the hospital.
After several days in a coma, Fennell died. Her cause of death was ruled as “natural causes” by state medical officials, according to court filings.
But Fennell’s uncle, Steward, was not convinced by the investigation, and he created a website called Justice4Sarah that published several documents from his niece’s death investigations.
According to court filings, Steward used the website to spread lies and defame Kuettel, calling
Kuettel a “known functioning alcoholic and a woman beater” in the Fort Smith area.
Steward’s site also suggested that Fennell died after a beating from Kuettel, that investigators “refused to hold” Kuettel accountable for his actions and that Kuettel “continued to commit disgusting acts upon Sarah’s unconscious and unresponsive body.”
In February 2012, Kuettel filed suit in Benton County, asking for damages because of emotional and personal distress caused by Steward’s campaign. He also asked the judge to bar Steward from further defamation and that he be required to remove all of his comments from the Internet, comments that had been picked up by other websites and could be found in at least 224 Web pages.
But Kuettel and his attorney couldn’t find Steward, according to court records.
Attempts to officially serve Steward with the lawsuit failed after law enforcement officials in Tennessee couldn’t find an accurate address for him.
Despite searches through several databases, as well as further attempts by Kuettel to get an address from Steward’s family also failed, Kuettel asked for an alternative means to serve Steward with the suit.
After noticing that a reporter from a local newspaper exchanged emails with Steward, Kuettel asked Duncan to allow for “alternative service” under the rules of Arkansas civil procedure and let attorneys email the proper notification to Steward.
Duncan signed off on it, and after several months, Steward never responded, prompting Kuettel to ask the court to grant a default judgment against the Tennessee man.
On June 28, Duncan agreed, ruling in favor of Kuettel and mandating that Steward remove statements from the Internet.
Once Steward was informed by YouTube that it would take down one of his videos, Steward filed his own motion in Benton County, arguing that the default judgment should be vacated because he was never properly informed of the lawsuit.
In October 2013, Duncan dismissed Steward’s motion, and the case was appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Attorneys for Kuettel argued that they followed proper procedure in notifying Steward and that when they sent the email, they even retained the services of a cybersecurity firm that confirmed that the email sent to Steward’s account had been read.
In his defense, Steward argued that Duncan’s ruling robbed him of his due-process rights and a chance to defend himself in court. He argued that he never saw the attachments in the email from Kuettel’s lawyers and that he receives thousands of emails — often spam — regarding his website.
“[I often get emails from people] often claiming to be lawyers, this one wasn’t special, with the exception that I was unable to read the attachments,” he told court officials. “I just assumed this was another fraud attempt and disregarded it.”
In Thursday’s ruling, the Supreme Court pointed out that lower courts can use alternative means of serving parties in a lawsuit, such as email, so long as it is “reasonably calculated” to ensure that all parties are properly notified.
“When notice is a person’s due, process which is a mere gesture is not due process,” Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote. “The means employed must be such as one desirous of actually informing the absentee might reasonably adopt to accomplish it.”
Although the lower court was satisfied by the “tracking device” implanted by the cybersecurity firm to show that Steward’s notification of service was received, the state’s highest court found that more should have been done to ensure Steward was properly notified.
“The alternative service of the process in the case was insufficient because it was not reasonably calculated to give actual notice to Steward,” Hannah wrote. “[The] default judgment is void … Because the default judgment was void because of insufficient service of process, [Duncan] erred in denying Steward’s motion to set aside default judgment.”