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I am in the United States and I have recently received a certified letter that was addressed to me (name and address).

It's about 80 pages actually. The cover sheet has a confidentiality notice, and the notice is the standard "you shall not read this unless you are the intended recipient".

The cover sheet also specifically states the contents are for someone else; therefore, I have not read anything beyond the cover sheet.

A note: I have no idea who/what the sending party is, and I have no affiliation that I know of with them.

So the question: What is the most legally prudent path forward here?

As I'm assuming this is a mistake, is the burden on me to contact the sender?

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    You might want to skim at least the first page or two after the cover letter. Clearly something got mixed up, but it is possible that the envelope and the main content are for you, and it was the cover letter that got misapplied. – Damila May 13 at 3:51
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    "I have no idea who/what the sending party is". No return address, letterhead, etc? – RonJohn May 13 at 7:44
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    Is it a matter in which you are at all concerned, or that could affect your money in any way? – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 13 at 18:37
  • How could OP know, if they did not read beyond the first page? – Mawg says reinstate Monica May 15 at 21:38
  • Well if is sent to you and has your address and your name on it, you have all rights to look at it wouldn't you? – CDA May 19 at 18:40
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If the envelope had someone else's name and not your name, you should in theory not have opened it, and should instead have marked it "Not known at this address. Return to Sender." and handed it back to the postal service to be returned.

If you were asked to sign for the letter, ideally you would check that it is not addressed to you (or anyone else now at your residence) and refuse to sign, but it is easy to overlook that at the moment a letter is presented to you. And sometimes certified mail is delivered without obtaining the signature of any resident.

If, however, the envelope had your name on it, you were entitled to open it, and are not bound by any confidentiality statements in the cover letter, assuming that you had no previous relationship with the sender. You may well choose to respect them, but you cannot be legally bound unless you accepted such an obligation at some point, usually in a contract of some sort. If you did have a confidential relationship with the sender, then its terms would normally control, whatever they might be.

You could prepare an envelope addressed to the sender, enclose the document, and mail it back to the sender. You could optionally add a short cover letter explaining how you received the document. If the envelope was addressed to some other person, this would, I think, be the best thing to do. If the document was addressed to you, this is totally optional, you could legally just discard the document and forget about it, and you can probably legally read it and do whatever you like about the contents. But as the answer by gnasher729 points out, returning it would be the nice thing. As the comment by Makyen points out, you may wish to retain evidence of what was received.

One sided confidentially statements on letters or faxes are not legally effective in the absence of some prior or current relationship or agreement to be bound in confidence.

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    This comment is confidential - you may not read, quote, disclose, or otherwise use it in any way. – Robert Columbia May 13 at 0:11
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    I'd suggest not discarding it. There's a reasonable possibility that the sender intended to send something else to the OP. At some point in the future, the sender may claim that the OP was notified of that something else. When it comes time for the OP to dispute that they were notified, the sender is going to pull out their copy of the certified mail receipt/record and say they sent the other thing. Having the actual (wrong) thing which was received will go a long way to supporting the OP's claim that they were not sent the thing the sender may claim they sent. – Makyen May 13 at 0:14
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    @Makyen Am interesting point. In light of that if one did choose to return the document to the sender, retaining a copy of the sender's cover letter, and of any letter of explanation sent with it by the OP would be a good idea. So would returning it by certified mail. If the OP ,has sender's email, scanning and sending a copy of the 2 cover letters by email might also help -- it provides a timestamped record inn the files of the email provider. – David Siegel May 13 at 0:41
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    I wonder what the last three words of @RobertColumbia 's comment are... (It's not like I'm going to read them...) – Eric Towers May 13 at 22:39
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    @AdamV : Counted unresolvable glyph groups. So there could be more words if there are hyphenates or dense punctuation. – Eric Towers May 14 at 22:19
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You are A. X sent you a letter clearly intended for B. Doing nothing is bound to create some confusion or worse, but legally you are not forced to do anything.

However: That letter might be about X intending to sue B. Obviously, something got mixed up. And there is a good chance that X will sue you (while intending to sue B). That lawsuit will not go anywhere, but it's still a pain and will cost you time and money if you do nothing.

Or the letter might be about a deal between X and B that is highly beneficial to both. You doing nothing may cost them lots of money, so it's not nice. And of course, either X or B could sue you for damages - again, the lawsuit won't go anywhere, but it's a pain.

For these two reasons, I'd recommend sending the letter back to X, with an explanation that it was wrongly delivered to you. It's the nice thing to do, but also prudent since you don't want to make enemies without need.

PS. It seems that here in the UK, some conspiracy theorist sued the PM Boris Johnson, delivered the court letters not to 11 Downing Street where Johnson lives but to 10 Downing Street, home of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, with a wrongly spelled name. And as a result Johnson was ordered to pay him £535. You couldn't make this up.

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    Make it clear in your cover letter that B does not live at your address, has never done so, and is not known to you. – CCTO May 13 at 1:57
  • Your last paragraph isn't exactly correct. Johnson didn't pay, the ruling was thrown out when reviewed by a judge. Doesn't weaken your point but it is misleading. – V. Sim May 14 at 21:02
  • The last paragraph is technically correct and slightly misleading. – Jirka Hanika May 14 at 21:10
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Why does the sender have b degnan's address, and why are they sending a registered letter to that address? It's quite possible that there were multiple letters sent out, and some envelopes got swapped. So there's a good chance that b degnan is supposed to get an important letter, but some stranger has it -- maybe the person who's supposed to get the letter b degnan has.

So, I would suggest: hang on to the letter, don't read it, but contact the sender and tell them about the mixup. This should set in motion a chain of events that ends with b degnan getting the important letter, if any, they're supposed to have.

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    "Contact the sender" should be done in writing and using certified mail. – xxbbcc May 13 at 16:51
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    I hadn't thought about that at all. Yes, if you receive a letter meant for someone else then there's a decent chance that a letter meant for you was sent elsewhere, and you might want to know about that. – gnasher729 May 14 at 14:06
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Two possibilities, both bad.

The notice is for you, and is a "CC".

You are not the primary addressee, but you have some legal or financial involvement in the matter.

For instance Joe and Ken get divorced. Their property has an ADU (guest house), and you have been a tenant there for 5 years. The court is going to allocate that property in the divorce, and that certainly could affect your at-will tenancy. So you need to know about it because it affects you.

When you have an interest like this, it certainly is fair for you to read the documents. If the matter really has nothing to do with you, then you are to hold the material confidential - posting it on the Internet or giving it to a tabloid newspaper would be the thing not to do.


"CC" stands for Carbon Copy, traditionally, a typewriter would be used with "carbon paper" to make additional copies of the letter; the original goes to the intended recipient and the CC's to others with interest in the matter. You could only get 2-3 carbon copies (tops) out of a letter; for more the secretary would have to re-type the letter. However, with email, there's no limit.

They meant to send you something else. It's important.

Law offices have legal secretaries and mail rooms that produce paper at a feverish pace. They may have put the wrong thing in the wrong envelope. Somebody else got a notice intended for you.

In that case we don't care about their proceeding, but we darn well care about your proceeding! Getting the wrong thing means you didn't get the right thing.

So if you don't recognize anything about the matter you were sent, you need to follow up with the sender PDQ so they can send you the correct material. Hurry up; the clock is ticking. You might be able to get a relevant date rescheduled because of the botched notification, but that's a pretty big "ask" so don't count on it.

Ignoring this won't stop the legal matter.

Generally when your involvement in a legal action is critical, they will serve you - a process server will physically find you and serve you papers. This is less than that, which means you are a lesser player, and the matter is going to proceed on time with or without your involvement.

They think you got certified mail notice because you signed for it. So you will have no standing to protest if the action didn't go your way.

"They sent me the wrong document" will fall on deaf ears, as you had time contemporarily (right now) to followup and get the right document.

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  • " If the matter really has nothing to do with you, then you are to hold the material confidential" there is no legal obligation to do so, in general, although it might well be the moral choice. – David Siegel May 13 at 22:37
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I had a similar experience a few years ago. I called the sender (a lawyer) to explain I was the wrong person, and he was grateful to me for letting him know. I have a common name and it turns out he was spamming everyone with my name in hopes of finding the right person.

I'm unable to comment on what's legally prudent for you, though.

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I think the main thing to worry about is the case where someone had something important they wanted to send to you and put the wrong contents in the envelope. Things can get messed up, maybe someone else got the contents you were supposed to receive. Now the sending party might have a record of you receiving the letter and assume that it contained the documents they wanted you to receive. I can think of some possibilities:

  • The IRS notifies you of unpaid taxes and interest that will accumulate until you pay them, they think you have been notified
  • You are being given notice that you are violating someone's copyright. Now they can add on 'willful infringement' if you continue because you've been notified
  • You have an inheritance from a long lost relative and the estate needs your information

Whatever it is, it may lead to difficulties later and extra work to clear up some misunderstanding. I would definitely keep the entire contents of the letter or at least evidence like maybe a photo of the cover letter along with the envelope at the very least. If someone brings up in court that you received a certified letter and have been notified, it will go better for you if you have proof you didn't receive what they intended you to receive.

I would make an attempt to find out what the problem is and document your discussions with them.

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    This may not apply to the OP (I certainly hope!) but people have been on the hook - i.e., actually forced to pay - for child support for years - even decades - for children not even their own - because they failed to respond to a court document that they never received! – davidbak May 13 at 17:37
  • @davidbak That may be explained by the "idiot factor". Once you are aware of a legal action, the onus is yours to "stay in the loop". Idiots often think they can forestall legal action indefinitely by evading service, and it's passive-aggressive, and fun, so it makes them feel powerful. But it doesn't work indefinitely, the action moves on without their input. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 13 at 19:05
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica - not always - there have been credible reports on lawyer/lawblog sites of people who were named as "father" by women who didn't want to name the real father and who were never actually contacted. Because wrong address, or whatever. Also I believe it is unfair to call everyone who gets notice of a legal action out of the blue an "idiot" if he does nothing about it. I get legal notices all the time that I throw away: Invitations to join various class action lawsuits. And there are many fake "legal" notices that are scams. You might ignore it thinking it was fake. – davidbak May 13 at 19:27
  • @davidbak I didn't. I was referring to people who think they can gain by indefinitely evading service, when I said "idiots". I was clear enough about that. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 13 at 19:41
  • I agree that anything sent email or plain mail can be disregarded as a scam, but First Class mail (and certainly not bulk mail) wouldn't be considered legal notice anyway, except in class actions. Notice starts at Certified Mail, and scammers can't afford $6 a letter. Well, Molski/Prenda/Righthaven notwithstanding, but those are guys you don't ignore and do go kick their ass. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 13 at 20:07

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