New Law Clarifies Process for Tenants who Avoid Service

To start an eviction lawsuit in Washington (a.k.a. an unlawful detainer action) the landlord must first serve applicable notices such as a notice to pay rent or vacate, comply or vacate, or a notice to terminate a month to month tenancy.

Next, the landlord must serve a summons and a complaint. The same type of documents are the starting point in any lawsuit—although the exact content of course varies in evictions from other types of lawsuits. The same strict rules about how to serve the summons and complaint applies in evictions as in other lawsuits, essentially requiring that a disinterested person place the documents into the hands of the person served.

A common problem is that some tenants avoid service—which they can do by simply refusing to answer the door. It is rarely cost-effective in an eviction to pay a process server to stake out the rental property.

Years ago this problem was addressed by a provision added to the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. The statute requires diligent efforts at person service of the summons and complaint. If diligent efforts at personal service fail, the landlord can seek a court order allowing posting and mailing of the summons and complaint. With this type of service the landlord can evict the tenant, but will not be granted a money judgment.

However, in commercial evictions there was no statute authorizing such service of the summons and complaint. Many local courts would grant it, but many would not. Even if it were granted, since the legal basis for a court order allowing posting and mailing the summons and complaint in commercial cases was far from clear, it was vulnerable to attack later on motion or on appeal.

Recently a new section was added to the eviction statutes that cover commercial evictions and post-foreclosure evictions.[1] The same procedure is now available in these cases—first diligent efforts at personal service, then a motion to allow posting and mailing. As in residential cases, there is no money judgment with this type of service. But, at least the process is not clarified and more certain.

Washington landlord-tenant attorney Travis Eller

[1] RCW 59.12.085.