Case of the Day: Seagate Technology v. Goel

The case of the day is Seagate Technology, LLC v. Goel (Cal. App. Ct. 2022). The case is a followup to Rockefeller v. Changzhou Sinotype, 460 P.3d 764 (Cal.), cert. denied, 141 S. Ct. 374 (2020). Rockefeller, you’ll recall, was the case where the California Supreme Court held that parties could contract around a foreign state’s objection to service by postal channels under Article 10 of the Service Convention by contractually agreeing to “informal” service of process. I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the US Supreme Court to review the case. Rockefeller involved a California judgment confirming an arbitral award, and the California decision was supported by many in the arbitration community, who were primarily interested in making it easy to enforce awards. But as today’s case shows, the mistake the court made in Rockefeller will not be limited, in its consequences, to lawsuits seeking to confirm arbitral awards.

In today’s case, Seagate settled long-running litigation against Goel’s company, eSys. The settlement included a promise by eSys to make a payment on a specified date, and Goel personally guaranteed the obligation. The decision doesn’t quote the contract language, but the contract contained a California choice of law agreement, a consent to the personal jurisdiction of the California courts, and an agreement “to service of process by U.S. mail to the addresses listed in the agreement.” When a dispute arose, Seagate sued Goel and served him by registered mail at his address in India. It’s unclear what documents were served, but I assume, as in Rockefeller, that the documents included a summons and complaint. Goel moved to quash the service. The lower court granted the motion, and Seagate appealed. In a strange twist, it seems that Seagate actually served Goel again, presumably by a less objectionable method, and the parties suggested that the appeal was therefore moot. Nevertheless, the court went on to decide the case.

The court held that the case was governed by Rockefeller and that it was error to quash the service. The discussion mostly just quotes Rockefeller. All the language about informal notice versus formal service sparked a thought I hadn’t had before: it seems as though, in California, there is maybe the same kind of distinction being drawn as the civil law countries draw between signification and notification. That is really foreign to our law. I would point out, though, that the Service Convention plainly applies to both the more formal and the less formal modes of service under the civil law. In French, the Convention defines its scope cases where there is occasion to transmit a judicial or extrajudicial document “qui doivent être signifiés ou notifiés à l’étranger.”

The problem with the decision is that it allows private parties to define something that looks exactly like service of process and has the same purpose and effect as service of process as something other than service of process so as to evade the requirements of The Hague Service Convention. This would be fine if the Convention was just aimed at facilitating the parties’ freedom of choice. But the Convention also protects foreign states from what some of them regard as infringements on their judicial sovereignty when foreign litigants do things like serve process in their territory. When a state objects to service by postal channels in its territory, it is asserting its own interests, not (just) the interests of people in its territory who may be served with process. A litigant can waive his own interests, but why should he be able to waive the interests of the state?

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