Michael G. Murray pulls his Honda Civic up to the gatehouse at Cheval Golf and Country Club, one of Hillsborough County's priciest residential neighborhoods. The guard inside smiles as she takes Murray's laminated photo ID, which identifies him as a certified process server.
"You again," Cheval's gatekeeper says with a grin. "How many you got this time?"
Murray, 45, pulls the top papers from a stack of recently filed foreclosure complaints piled on the armrest. "Just one stop today," he says as the guard returns his ID.
"All right then," she says. "Good luck!"
From the front seat of Murray's car, which racks up about 50,000 miles a year zigzagging around northwest Hillsborough County, one thing is clear: Florida's foreclosure wave has washed away class distinctions. On this day in late November, he'll try to deliver foreclosure papers to owners of a double-wide as well as a $1.6 million lakeside mansion. He'll ring doorbells at a small pink-shuttered block home with grass gone to sand, a condo with a U.S. Marine emblem on the door and a sprawling corner lot estate with well-tended lawn.
Murray's job is straightforward: deliver the legal papers that officially notify property owners — and related parties like spouses, tenants or homeowners associations — that their loan is in default and the lender has filed a lawsuit to get the property back.
With more homes going into foreclosures — and more homeowners challenging those actions — the performance of process servers has come under increased scrutiny. Defense lawyers say servers frequently take shortcuts that result in homeowners not being properly served. A judge in Pasco County recently complained about overbilling by process servers, saying they pile on unnecessary fees. Florida's attorney general has launched an investigation of complaints against Tampa's ProVest, the company Murray contracts with, as well as another process service company in Miami. ProVest says it is cooperating fully with the investigation.
In a world gone paperless, the court system still considers personal service of process — physically delivering documents to the individual named in the lawsuit — as the gold standard. Second best option is substitute service — handing the paper to someone over 15 years old who is living at the same address. Last resort, only used when the process server claims the defendant can't be found, is service by publication, or putting legal notice of the lawsuit in a paper like Gulf Coast Business Review.
In Florida, process servers are not licensed statewide, but instead by local circuit courts or sheriff's departments. Murray took a 35-hour course and passed an exam and background check to become a certified process server in Hillsborough County.
Murray said he's surprised by the allegations against fellow process servers and ProVest, the only company for which he has ever worked as a contractor. ProVest arranged for the St. Petersburg Times to ride along with Murray.
"I have a very good relationship with them," he said, adding that ProVest routinely checks his work. Murray said he has never had his performance questioned.
"My signature is on everything I do, so I'm the one who's accountable" he said. "Plus I have to look at myself in the mirror in the morning."
As one of more than a half-dozen contractors for ProVest in Hillsborough County, Murray is assigned to deliver papers to about 300 addresses every month, often with two or three people being served at each address. He has to make the first attempt within 24 hours; most papers are delivered by the third try. Only once or twice a month does he have to file an affidavit with the court, saying the defendant is deliberately dodging him.
"Most people are expecting it," he said of the legal papers, which include an official summons, plus copies of the complaint and the mortgage. "Some say they won't take the papers, but once I've told them what I have and they have identified themselves, I can serve the paper whether they accept it or not. I can't make them put out their hand but I don't need a signature."
Doors have been slammed in his face, but not often. An old guy invited Murray in to chat and show off his antique handgun, not loaded. A young man opened the door in a towel, half-shaven, with a gun in his hand. He has had people call the police — who then accompany Murray as he delivers the papers. He has faced down a 90-pound guard dog that pounced when the homeowner answered her door. And he listened patiently when confronted by an angry homeowner who also happened to be a professional wrestler.
"He ranted for five minutes about having a concealed weapon and a Rottweiller and then wanted to tell me his troubles with the homeowners association," Murray said. "I just kept nodding, though I really wasn't interested, and he finally settled down. I can kind of control how things go."
Murray spent 20 years in the restaurant business, and he credits years of tending bar, staying cool while others lose control, for his ability to survive as a process server. Other qualities needed: enough persistence to make up to a dozen trips to one address, sometimes at dawn, to find a defendant; an ability not to take it personally when people hide behind the curtains or ignore the bright yellow "Call me" notices he tucks in the front door; and a willingness to work 60 to 70 hours a week, walking up to strangers' doors every day but Sunday.
"I don't deliver papers on Thanksgiving or Christmas," Murray said. "But I would go out on Memorial Day or Labor Day to find someone."
Though Murray has a handful of friends going through the foreclosure process, and he once tried to deliver a foreclosure notice to a former college roommate, he doesn't find the job depressing.
"I'm my own boss, but I work harder than I ever did," said Murray, who has a business degree from the University of South Florida. "I'm here to inform people an action is pending, and they need to come forward and tell their story."
Working out of his car for up to 10 hours a day, foreclosure files in a clear plastic bin on the passenger seat, a GPS above his rear-view mirror and a diet Mountain Dew in the cup-holder, Murray has a routine. He stops before he reaches a house to pull the papers, stamp them with his name, license number, date and time. If anyone answers his knock, Murray identifies himself, says he has a paper for someone, then asks if they are that person. If the answer is yes, he tells them it's a legal document, not a court date, but they need to file a written response within 20 days. "I always circle the '20 days' part on the paper," he said.
If there's no answer, Murray will look for signs of occupancy — dogs barking, lawn furniture, power meter spinning. If there's a car in the drive, he jots down the tag number to check later. He's allowed to walk around the property, but never enter the house. If a door is ajar and opens when Murray knocks, "I just back away," he said.
Back in the car, he jots notes on a purple sticky tag for locations where he struck out and files it for a return visit. If the owner or another resident accepted the papers or he confirmed the property was vacant — no furniture, for sale sign, no power — Murray can file the legal paper that leads to a paycheck from ProVest. Whether it has taken one visit or six to get to that point, Murray gets paid the same amount. But if there are four people served at the same address — even if some of them turn out to be nonexistent — he gets paid for each one.
Judges and defense lawyers say this practice of multiple service needlessly inflates the bill, which is eventually paid through the sale of the foreclosed home. Lenders' lawyers say it's more cost-efficient to cast a wide net for all possible parties, including unknown tenants or new spouses, at the beginning of the lawsuit, than to amend the lawsuit later. Murray and ProVest say they just follow the lawyers' instructions.
ProVest bills lenders about $45 for each service completed, but contractors like Murray only receive $8 to $12 of that, according to industry sources. Murray, who declined to say how much he is paid, said his income rose steadily his first three years in the business, as the number of foreclosures boomed in Tampa Bay. The recent slowdown in foreclosure filings by major lenders has affected his income this year, but he's optimistic.
"Last year, December was really busy, so maybe it will pick up," he said, though by midmonth business was still sluggish.
During one recent six-hour shift, Murray drives the roads of Tampa, Lutz and Odessa, a tower of rubber bands on the Civic's gear shifter and Rev. Horton Heat's rockabilly music in the CD player. Essentials of the trade are within arm's reach: BlackBerry, stapler, tape, flashlight, tire plug kit and a bag of bran cereal to help him avoid fast-food drive-throughs. "I've gained 25 pounds on this job," he says.
Consulting a cheat-sheet with codes for dozens of gated neighborhoods in his territory, Murray taps in the magic numbers for one upscale subdivision. "Every process server has these lists," he says as the gates open wide. "We collect them."
On this day, 20 stops yield 10 hits for Murray. At one home, a 19-year-old girl accepts foreclosure papers for her stepmom, a new widow. At another, a 16-year-old boy wants to know why his parents are getting a stack of official-looking papers. "They have something to do with the bank," Murray tells him.
A woman identified in court papers as head of a homeowners association looks relieved when Murray explains that he's there to deliver papers about a neighbor's foreclosure.
"You made me a little nervous," she says as she and her husband hang Christmas lights. "We're two months behind on our mortgage, and we're expecting a notice soon."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996.