USPS Certified Mail:
Electronic Return Receipt
or Green Card?
The USPS provides two mechanisms for obtaining a return receipt to confirm delivery of a certified mail piece. The first is the Green Card
(aka USPS Form 3811) and is what people usually think of for "return receipt requested". The second, Return Receipt Electronic, is newer
(approaching 15 years old) and is a PDF on USPS letterhead. Both services evidence receipt with the recipient's signature. Both services allow the sender to track the
location of the mail piece. However, choosing the right mechanism can significantly cut out of pocket, preparation, and tracking costs as well as
increase the speed and strength of your record.
What Are the Differences?
To start, savings is one difference - sending certified mail Electronic Return Receipt saves half versus sending with a Green Card
- but cost isn't the the only, or even the biggest, difference.
Traditional "Green Card"
Electronic Return Receipt
The traditional Green Card is a physical piece of paper, so the original is the only one in existence. When the receipient signs it, it is returned to the sender through the postal service and takes a few to several days to be delivered.
If the USPS loses it on its way back from the recipient to you - and this
happens more than you may think - you have a problem. If you lose it or misfile it, you have a problem. To store it electronically, you have to scan both sides.
One other difference is how they enter the mail stream. Mail with a Green Card may have postage applied and sent from anywhere, and it will
get scanned by the postal service for an "Origin Acceptance" when it gets there (if you didn't bring it to a Post Office).
When the recipient signs for receipt of the certified mail, the signature and delivery address is scanned the USPS and placed in the PDF. We are able to detect the signature within a few hours (when the USPS delivery person uploads his route's data).
We get the PDF for you and deliver it to your email, along with your original document and our Certification of when we mailed it and when it was delivered
and signed for. Those emails can be imported directly into document or case management sytems - sometimes even automatically.
You can also enter the 20 digit tracking code on the USPS website to get it yourself by email.
Sending using the less expensive Electronic Return Receipt can only be done via an electronic service (such as Docsmit) or by bringing the mail piece to
a post office. The mail piece is scanned in for an Origin Acceptance when received by the post office. Docsmit unlocks the discounted rate by bringing
your mail piece to the post office to be scanned in.
Is There a Legal Difference?
The USPS Says...
... that they're equivalents. The USPS announced Electronic Return Receipt in September of 2004 on Page 43 of USPS Postal Bulletin 22137
Return receipt (electronic) is the equivalent of the traditional "green card" ... that provides proof of delivery for Certified Mail™ ...
They both contain the receipient's signature acknowledging receipt. The Green Card has the original ink on paper, whereas the PDF just has a
scan. However, because either party can get the PDF directly from the USPS, this should essentially eliminate any risk of spoliation controversy.
But What About The Courts?
The USPS declaration is helpful, but if the courts see a difference between Certified Mail sent Return Receipt Electronic and Certified Mail
sent with a Green Card, then it's going to be tough to know if Return Receipt Electronic is acceptable.
All courts' statements we have seen are clear that the Return Receipt Electonic can be used in place of Certified Mail Return Receipt Requested
using a Green Card. We feel that while this abundance of clarity is helpful, it is also a bit of "belt and suspenders" given the Postal Service's
very clear pronouncement.
- Here is one such notice from the New Jersey Supreme Court.
- In April of 2009, Washington passed House Bill 1426 allowing the use of ERR when a Return Receipt is authorized or required.
- Here are similar rules in Indiana's Randolph and Henry Counties.
- A Pennsylvania court explicitly permits electronic return receipt.
- The money saving benefits are pointed to on a Nebraska Small Claims Court form, although their legislature or bar has not made explicit that it can be used.
- In West Virginia, electronic return receipts can be sent when serving foreign corporations per this and that.
- The Court itself is not precluded from using it in Pennsylvania.