The actor Olivia Wilde was discussing a forthcoming film on stage this week when she received a mysterious envelope, passed across the stage by someone in the front row.
The contents, according to various reports, were custody papers from her ex-fiance, Jason Sudeikis, with whom she has two kids. Wilde reportedly didn’t bat an eye after opening the papers, marked “personal and confidential”, but the incident sparked questions. How did the person who served the papers get into the event at CinemaCon, a star-studded film industry gathering in Las Vegas? And why did the person choose such a public moment to hand the documents to Wilde?
Sudeikis, star of Apple TV+’s hit show Ted Lasso, did not know the papers would be served in such a way, a representative told Deadline.
“Mr Sudeikis had no prior knowledge of the time or place that the envelope would have been delivered as this would solely be up to the process service company involved and he would never condone her being served in such an inappropriate manner,” the spokesperson said.
But “this isn’t the first time that anything like this has happened”, says Ken Hastings, president of Hastings Legal Services in Temecula, California.
Indeed, there is precedent for such public incidents, gleefully tracked by the celebrity gossip outlet TMZ. In 2013, for instance, an audience member apparently served legal papers to the musician Ciara while she was performing. A few years later, Tyga was hosting a sneaker release party when someone approached him to have him sign a few boxes – then handed him some papers and posed for a picture. Britney Spears was given documents while leaving a medical facility, according to video on the site. And last year, Dr Dre was apparently served divorce papers immediately after attending his grandmother’s funeral.
David Glass, another California attorney, told People about serving the baseball player Steve Garvey a few decades back. “He was hiding, he was always staying inside. And we found out that he was going to be speaking at this seminar. And so my boss at the time had our process server buy a ticket, went into the event and basically the same thing that they did here, walked up on stage and gave it to them. I wouldn’t have approved it, but that’s what my boss did.”
Whether what happened to Wilde was appropriate would depend, in Hastings’ opinion, on whether serving the papers onstage was a last resort – for example, if the person appeared to be “evading service”.
Speaking to NPR, a Las Vegas-area process server took a similar view. “I have never come across a client or been involved in a serve where this would be the first thing we do,” Bill Falkner said. It was the most public incident he was aware of, he said.
Service of process is the formal name for the procedure in which a recipient is given papers to launch the legal process. In celebrity-rich states including California and New York, the rules are fairly broad.
Most adults can deliver the papers, as long as they’re not parties to the case – so, in theory, you could have your best friend do it. In California, papers can be served “at the party’s home, work, or anywhere on the street”. Is the recipient refusing to take the documents? Never fear: “They can be left on the ground in front of him or her. If he or she takes the papers and tears them up or throws them away, service is still considered to be valid,” according to the state’s judicial branch.
But you might prefer to hire a professional, known as a process server. For one thing, it removes some of the legal headaches involved, says Hastings. A friend has to prove to a court that they have served the papers, whereas if a process server does the job, it’s up to the recipient to prove they weren’t served, he says, though the rules governing the whole process vary by state.
What’s more, process servers have expertise in tracking people down. “We do skip traces. We do stakeouts. We do many things that private investigators do,” Hastings says.
So is it like in the movies, where people use all kinds of schemes to chase people? “The movies get it wrong where, you know, we dress up in different uniforms to try to do things,” Hastings says.
But going to great lengths isn’t unusual – for instance, early in his career, Hastings used a parking garage to “surveil a condo in downtown LA, to make sure that the subject we were looking for was in the condo. So we got eye level with that unit,” and then had to find a way into the building, he says.
Once you reach the target, “you have to identify the person, the general nature of the documents, and have proximity to that person”, Hastings says. That means that – at least in California, home of Hollywood – you might not hear the familiar refrain from the movies: “You’ve been served.”