Case ends after 26 years

July 15, 2009
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After more than a quarter century, a judge out in Montana finally ruled on a dispute over the ownership of natural gas leases.

It didn’t take 26 years for a resolution in the case because of countless appeals or court delays.

It was because the judge misplaced the file.

According to a few news sources and blogs about this case, retired District Judge Ronald McPhillips presided over Ayers v. Rubow in the early 1980s and apparently recently found the file in an old briefcase at home.

The judge retired after the case was submitted because of health reasons, which is the suspected reason for the extreme delay.

In a case that Ayers argued was potentially worth millions of dollars, how do you let a quarter century pass before the case is finally ruled on?

The attorney for Ayers said he finally gave up on it because he felt it was going nowhere. Judge McPhillips came out of retirement to make the ruling and decided Ayers didn’t prove his case.

If I filed a lawsuit in which I may be entitled to millions of dollars, you bet I’m going to stick with it, call the clerk’s office, my attorney, and anyone else I could to make sure it was moving through the system.

How did this not come to the judge’s attention sooner or any of the judges who took Judge McPhillips’ place in District Court? Why didn’t Ayers or the defendant file any grievances or seek help looking into the matter?

This is a pretty extreme delay in a case getting resolved, but these kinds of things happen in many courts. The misplacement of a file in a Marion County court was one of the reasons a Marion Superior judge was suspended without pay earlier this year. The missing file was in the case of a man wrongly convicted of rape.

Lessons to learn from this case: Keep better track of your case files and take meticulous notes. Judge McPhillips did, which allowed him to rule on the case after the Montana Supreme Court allowed him to do so. Also, follow up with the court and your attorney so you don’t have to wait 26 years for a resolution on your suit.

There’s no word on whether Ayers plans to appeal the ruling.
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  • What likely happened, in my estimation, is that the case settled out of court and nobody bothered to file a stipulation of dismissal. Hence, no parties to the litigation cared that no ruling was handed down, since they had already settled. If no stipulation of dismissal is filed with the court, court staff is unlikely to notice that the file is missing.

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