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COA affirms dismissal of case 18 years after filing

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled that a Henry Circuit judge correctly dismissed a union’s complaint about a manufacturing plant closure more than two decades ago, finding that the union failed to prosecute the case for 18 years and that was an adequate basis for dismissal.

In United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local Union No. 2371, Official Bargaining Agent, et al. v. Merchandising Equipment Group, Div. of MEG Manufacturing Corp., et al., No. 33A05-1107-CP-345, the appellate court analyzed a lawsuit dating back to the Cambridge City manufacturing plant closure in 1992 in which 220 former employees of Merchandising Equipment Group, Division of MEG Manufacturing Corporation, lost their jobs.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local Union No. 2371 is the employees’ union representative. Employees believed that at the time of their termination they were owed compensation totaling $3.3 million. The employees filed notices in June 1992 to hold a mechanic’s lien and corporate employees’ lien, and the next year filed a complaint against Hewlett-Packard Company Financing and Remarketing Division because of security interests it held in the MEG property. The union made a novel argument under Indiana law in claiming that pursuant to the mechanic’s lien and corporate employees’ lien statutes, the employees’ liens were superior to HP’s and the bank’s.  

But the case barely moved forward, except for the bank’s filing of a summary judgment motion in late 1995 and HP’s filing a motion for summary judgment in early 1996. The trial judge recused himself because of a conflict of interest and the Hon. John L. Kellam took over as special judge in 1996. He held a summary judgment hearing, but he didn’t rule after that. Status conferences were requested and held in 2001 and 2008, but eventually HP and the bank filed a Trial Rule 41(E) motion to dismiss because so much time had passed. After a hearing where the union objected, the special judge granted the motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute.

Describing this delay as “unprecedented,” the Court of Appeals rejected the union’s argument that it didn’t move forward because it was waiting for a summary judgment motion from the special judge. The appellate panel noted the union could have requested a ruling, additional status conferences, another hearing, a pretrial conference or even a trial date to address the delays.

“We recognize that dismissals are generally disfavored and do not condone the special judge’s failure to rule on the summary-judgment motions for fourteen years,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote. “Nevertheless, the burden of moving the litigation is upon the plaintiff, not the court. Given the Union’s decade-long delay and lack of excuse for the delay, we conclude that this case is one of those limited circumstances where dismissal is warranted.”

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