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2004-UP-101 - Hutto v. County of Aiken

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

Beverly Hutto,        Appellant,

v.

County of Aiken,        Respondent.


Appeal From Aiken County
Robert A. Smoak, Jr., Master-in-Equity


Unpublished Opinion No. 2004-UP-101
Submitted December 23, 2003 – Filed February 18, 2004


AFFIRMED


James Chaplin Cox, III, of Columbia, for Appellant,

F. Matlock Elliott and  Phillip Florence, Jr., both of Columbia, for Respondent.


PER CURIAM: Beverly Hutto appeals a grant of summary judgment to the County of Aiken based on her failure to serve the summons and complaint in her civil action against the County within the prescribed statute of limitations.  Hutto contends that, as a matter of law, service was sufficiently completed before the statute of limitations expired.  We affirm.

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In May 2000, a family court judge in Aiken County issued a bench warrant for Hutto, alleging she failed to pay child support “as ordered.”  Consequently, Hutto was arrested and incarcerated in June 2000. [1]  

Hutto initiated the present action, claiming she was improperly arrested because the bench warrant was issued based on false information given to the family court by an employee of the Aiken County Clerk of Court. [2]   According to a signed “certified mail receipt”, she mailed a copy of the summons and complaint to “Joan Williams Interim Adm. 828 Richland Ave., W. Aiken, SC 29801” in December 2001.  A person named Sherry Mathis apparently signed the receipt on December 12, 2001, indicating receipt of the summons and complaint.

The County did not answer the summons and complaint, prompting Hutto to seek an order granting entry of default against the county.  The County subsequently moved to set aside the entry of default.  In August 2, 2002 order, the master-in-equity set aside the entry of default, finding “the Complaint was never properly served on the Defendant [County] in this matter.”  Additionally, he specified that attorney James M. Davis was the County’s proper agent for service of process, and directed Hutto to effect service on him.  Hutto then served the summons and complaint on Davis on August 8, 2002. 

After receiving service of Hutto’s summons and complaint, the County filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the action was barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitations provided by the S.C. Tort Claims Act.  Following a hearing, the master-in-equity granted the County’s summary judgment motion based upon his finding that Hutto’s action was barred by the two-year statute of limitations provided by the S.C. Tort Claim’s Act, since Hutto’s cause of action arose in June 2000 but she didn’t complete service until August 2002.  This appeal follows.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

“Summary judgment is appropriate when it is clear that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”  Café Assocs., Ltd. v. Gerngross, 305 S.C. 6, 9, 406 S.E.2d 162, 164 (1991).  “In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the evidence and the inferences which can be drawn therefrom should be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.”  Id.

LAW/ANALYSIS

Hutto argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the County on the ground that her action was bared by the applicable statute of limitations.  We disagree.

As an initial matter, we note that Hutto does not dispute that the action is subject to a two-year statute of limitations provided by the South Carolina Tort Claims Act.  See S.C. Code Ann. 15-78-110 (Supp. 2001); Harrison v. Bevilacqua, 354 S.C. 129, 134, 580 S.E.2d 109, 112 (2003) (“[A]ny action brought pursuant to this chapter is forever barred unless an action is commenced within two years after the date the loss was or should have been discovered.”)  Instead, she contends that service was effectuated when she mailed the summons and complaint to “Joan Williams” in December 2001.  Specifically, she contends she substantially complied with the rule of civil procedure regarding service of process by mailing the documents to the Aiken County Administrator, “the proper agent for service of process against the County of Aiken.”

Rule 4(d), SCRCP, provides service of process may be made:

(1)     Upon an individual other than a minor under the age of 14 years or an incompetent person, by delivering a copy of the summons and complaint to him personally or by leaving copies thereof at his dwelling house or usual place of abode with some person of suitable age and discretion then residing therein, or by delivering a copy to an agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service of process.

(3)     Upon a corporation or upon a partnership or other unincorporated association which is subject to suit under a common name, by delivering a copy of the summons and complaint to an officer, a managing or general agent, or to any other agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service of process and if the agent is one authorized by statute to receive service and the statute so requires, by also mailing a copy to the defendant.


(emphasis added).  This rule serves the dual purposes of conferring personal jurisdiction on the court and assuring the defendant of reasonable notice of the action.  Id. 

The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that the court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant.  Moore v. Simpson, 322 S.C. 518, 523, 473 S.E.2d 64, 66 (1996).  Exacting compliance with the rules of civil procedure is not required to effect service of process.  Id.  “Rather, inquiry must be made as to whether the plaintiff has sufficiently complied with the rules such that the court has personal jurisdiction of the defendant and the defendant has notice of the proceedings.”  Id. 

Here, Hutto attempted service, as required by Rule 4(d), SCRCP, on a person named Joan Williams, as the purported Interim Aiken County Administrator.  However, the record contains no dispute as to the fact that Aiken County did not employ a person named Joan Williams or that it did not have an interim county administrator at the time service was attempted.  The summons and complaint were apparently received by a person named Sherry Mathis, who signed the receipt returned from the summons and complaint.  There is no allegation that any person named Sherry Mathis had specific authorization to receive service on behalf of the County.  Thus, we find as a matter of law that Hutto did not sufficiently comply with the applicable rules of civil procedure, and consequently failed to effectuate service upon the County during her December 2001 attempt.  See Moore v. Simpson, 322 S.C. at 523-24, 473 S.E.2d at 56-57 (determining that without specific authorization to receive service, service is not effected upon an employee of a Defendant.)  While exacting compliance with service of process rules is not required, the departure here is too substantial.  To uphold this attempted service as valid would effectively render the requirements of Rule 4 meaningless.

We find that the record indicates Hutto’s cause of action arose in June 2000 and a two-year statute of limitations applies.  Accordingly, the statutory period within which she was required to complete service of process sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction over the County expired in June 2002.  Because the record indicates that Hutto did not properly effect service on the County until two months later, in August 2002, we find as a matter of law that the master-in-equity properly granted summary judgment to the County on the grounds that the action was barred by the statute of limitations.

CONCLUSION

For the forgoing reasons, the decision of the Master-in-Equity is

AFFIRMED.

GOOLSBY, HOWARD, and KITTREDGE, JJ., concur.


[1]        The record is unclear as the specific date of her arrest or the duration of her incarceration.  The parties do not dispute that she was arrested in June 2000.  As to the duration of her incarceration, Hutto’s brief states she “remained in custody against her will until she was released by the presiding Family Court Judge of Aiken County.”  The County of Aiken’s brief specifies that she only remained in jail “over night.”

[2]        The summons and complaint does not appear in the record, but the record and briefs indicate Hutto brought a negligence action against the County for false arrest.