Hundreds of small claims lawsuits filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court on behalf of a Belleville hospital to collect delinquent bills may be challenged because the county official, Rick Stone, who served the summonses did not have a PI license.
Stone, who is an official coroner, was delivering the summonses until Chief Judge John Baricevic in May told him to stop unless he could prove he was licensed. In most cases, a process server in Illinois must possess a state private investigator’s license or a card allowing the person to work under the supervision of a licensed investigator.
“I told him that unless he can show me that he had a P.I. license that he could no longer serve,” Baricevic said.
Stone estimated that beginning sometime in 2009 and ending in May, he was paid to serve as many as 300 summonses for Argent Healthcare Financial Services on behalf of Memorial Hospital.
Argent is a national firm with offices in Belleville. Stone was paid privately for this work, separate from his public duties as coroner.
Baricevic said that because Stone wasn’t licensed doesn’t necessarily mean that a case will be thrown out. According to civil court procedure, respondents who show up in court in response to a summons — even if it is served by an unlicensed person — but fail to object in court lose their right to bring this issue up at a later date. But, people who do not show up but become aware later that their case is based on a flawed summons can still ask a judge to void the entire case. If this happens, the suing party can serve new summonses (by licensed PIs) and reinstate the cases. In any case, if a judge was to void a lawsuit because of the summoner, it would lead to a big mess.
Stone said that previously he believed that being elected coroner allowed him to act as a process server. State law allows a coroner to act as a process server, but only if the county sheriff is legally disqualified. Judges may appoint a person over 18 to serve a summons, but that must be done for each individual case. Stone has applied for a card from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation that would allow him to work as a process server if he is employed by a licensed private investigator.
“There was no intent to deceive. The law is so vague,” Stone said. “I tried to do everything right. I stubbed my toe.”
Stone also violated the rules by having someone else serve to houses that had steps to the doorway. Stone claimed he has a hard time going up stairs so sometimes he brought someone (unnamed) to walk up to doors for him.
Licensed private investigators Dick Barrett, of Nashville, and Skip Mize, of Caseyville, said they would not allow one person to serve a summons and another to sign the line under the process server signature heading.
“You are the one serving the paper. You have to go to the door,” said Barrett, adding, “You have to tell them when to show up in court and make sure it is the right person.”