Fedoras and Venetian blinds

Williams v. Werlinger, No. 14-3746 (7th Cir. Aug 5, 2015).

Usually, a plaintiff must itself arrange for proper service of a summons on a defendant. But the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that a plaintiff can ask a court to have the U.S. Marshals Service serve a defendant with a summons—and the court “may” oblige the plaintiff. But if a plaintiff is indigent, the Rules say that a district court “must” order the U.S. marshals to serve a defendant with a summons.

Here, the U.S. Marshals Services tried to find a defendant (a retired warden) on behalf of an indigent prisoner. The marshals did an internet database search, but reported to the magistrate judge that they couldn’t find the defendant. The magistrate judge gave the plaintiff two months to find the defendant himself; when he couldn’t, the indigent prisoner’s case was dismissed without prejudice. 

The Seventh Circuit now reverses in an entertainingly written opinion. The warden is a former federal employee. He can’t just have disappeared. Maybe he’s receiving a federal pension. The marshals are experts at tracking down fugitives from the law. Surely they can track down a retired federal prison warden. And the court ends its opinion with this admonition:

Seventh Circuit appeal