It is sometimes difficult for lawyers to evaluate how our actions affect other people. Indeed, the decisions lawyers make can have a massive impact on others, but we are often unable to observe the consequences of those acts. I, like many attorneys, regularly send certified letters asking for a return receipt to be signed confirming delivery. Sometimes, I send mail this way because I am required to by court rules or statutes, and other times, I use this method as a matter of preference. Although I have not received a certified letter that required a signature in years, I recently got two such letters in the mail. The experience has shown me that lawyers should try to send fewer certified letters with return receipt requested during the pandemic because of public health considerations and other reasons.
I have been an enthusiastic subscriber of Informed Delivery®, a service of the United States Postal Service, for years. This capability is amazing, and it basically allows you to see all of the mailpieces you will receive for a given day by email each morning. A few weeks ago, I noticed that I would be receiving two certified letters from a random attorney in my area that would be delivered that day.
All throughout the day, I racked my brain thinking about why I would be receiving such certified letters. I was pretty sure that the letters were part of a mass mailing, since the addresses on the letters were in a weird format that is listed on public records related to my condo. Unfortunately, my suspense about the purpose of the certified letters did not end that day because the mail carrier left me a note in my mailbox indicating that I would have to come to the post office to pick up my letters because a signature could not be obtained when the letters were delivered.
Normally a trip to the post office isn’t a big deal, but several weeks ago, I suffered my annual “back attack” which left me pretty sprung out for a handful of days (thankfully I have since recovered!). The post office in my town is over a mile away, and up a hill, and since the parking situation on the main drag of my town is a nightmare, I knew I would have to walk to the post office. After slowly making my way to the post office with my bad back, I discovered that the line at the post office was so long that it extended outside.
I stood in line at the post office for over an hour, my back hurting unbelievably the entire time, just to sign for the certified letters. I noticed that many of the people in line at the post office had the same slip of paper that I received directing us to come to the post office to sign for our mail. While in line, all of us had to stand inside for a long period of time next to dozens of other people, and post offices are not known for their good ventilation.
After finally signing for my certified letters, I discovered that I was receiving a notice because a developer wanted to make changes to the area in which my condo was located, and I was being given notice of a zoning board hearing to discuss the issue. I was pretty upset! I had absolutely no intention of attending the hearing that discussed this mundane issue. In addition, I did a cursory search of all the laws cited in the letter, and I could find no requirement that any notices be sent by certified mail with return receipt requested (although I readily admit I could have missed something!). In my frustration at wasting hours over these certified letters, I thought about sending the lawyer who wrote that letter a certified letter of my own with return receipt requested so she could get a taste of what I experienced. However, I soon thought better of the situation, and licked my wounds by heading to the White Castle near the post office to satisfy my craving. At least the trip was not a total waste!
There are some situations in which lawyers need to send certified letters with return receipt requested because a law or court rule requires this method. In addition, there are certain situations in which it is advantageous to use this method. As my adversaries will readily convey, I am a practitioner in the dark arts of spoliation, which often requires that a party be put on notice about a claim and their obligation to preserve evidence. One of the best ways to prove that a party has notice about a claim is to send them a spoliation letter and use the return receipt card to prove that the other party received the letter. In addition, sometimes parties wish to send certified letters with return receipt requested in order to broadcast to the other party that the letter is important.
However, we are currently enduring one of the worst public health crises in over a century. Forcing people to wait in line at the post office does not help with social distancing, and when lawyers send hundreds or even thousands of certified letters with return receipt requested in one community, it can overburden the postal service, which does not need any additional issues right now. As a result, lawyers should carefully evaluate if they really need to send letters by certified mail return receipt requested for the remainder of the pandemic.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at [email protected].