Absent Mindedness

Judge Rules on Lawsuit 26 Years Late, After Finding File in His Attic


#justice #lawyers #lawsuits #procrastination #justicedelayed

As far as landmark judicial decisions go, the mineral rights case of Ayers v Rubow is hardly a candidate to change the face of established jurisprudence. When Toole County, Montana Judge Ronald McPhillips issued his ruling in the case in the summer of 2009, it is doubtful few would have noticed, except for a couple of curious details. For one thing, Judge McPhillips had retired in 1994. For another thing, the case had been filed 26 years earlier and it had been nearly a quarter of a century since it had gone to trial.

The lawsuit began in 1983 when the plaintiff, Milan Ayers, claimed James Rubow breached his contract with him concerning certain mineral rights. The case progressed to a bench trial in 1985, at which time Judge McPhillips said he would take the matter under advisement and issue his ruling at a later date.

That “later date” came later than anyone anticipated. The judge evidently set the file aside and forgot about it. Inexplicably, neither the plaintiff, defendant, or either of their attorneys expressed any curiosity or impatience about the unresolved matter, even when the judge retired in 1994.

Years later, upon finding the file in an old briefcase in his attic, the now-retired judge sought guidance from the Montana Supreme Court, which suggested that if Judge McPhillips still remembered the case, he could make a ruling.  Fortuitously, McPhillips had taken what he described as “extensive notes,” and was able to issue a decision, finding that the plaintiff had not proven his case and should recover nothing from the defendant.

William Conklin, the attorney for Ayers, expressed his disappointment in the ruling and stated that Ayers would prevail on appeal. He said he “remembered part of the case” and was sure that evidence had been presented, and possibly arguments, as well.  The attorney for the victorious defendant Rubow had no comment, as it is uncertain whether he or she is alive.

Something must have happened between Mr. Ayers and his attorney because when the case was appealed, Mr. Ayers chose to represent himself, rather than continue to use Mr. Conklin. This time Mr. Ayers did not have to wait nearly as long for a resolution to his case. The Montana Supreme Court took the case on July 14, 2010, and issued its decision 27 days later.

As it turned out, Mr. Ayers didn’t fare any better with swift justice than he did when justice was delayed. The Supreme Court unanimously concluded that Mr. Ayers failed to present any legal reason why Judge McPhillips’ decision should be overturned. While lamenting that it was “extremely unfortunate that the judgment in this case was not filed for almost 25 years,” the Court also noted that Mr. Ayers took no measures to try to hasten a resolution to the matter. The Court also found Mr. Ayers’ allegations of conspiracies against him to be beyond the scope of what it could consider, thus bringing to a final conclusion, the case of Ayer v Rubow.

Had the case continued for much longer, it might have become reminiscent of the infamous case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, so memorably described in the opening pages of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.”

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