The Perils of not Checking on Your Case

The courts like to see cases handled with some reasonable dispatch. Compared to most states, Oregon has a fast scheduling system. Most of the time, the goal is to get civil cases to trial in a year. Because of this, if you neglect your case, you may be out of luck if something happens when you aren’t paying attention. A recent case, Union Lumber Co. v. Miller, 360 Or 767 (2017), <www.publications.ojd.state.or.us/docs/S062459.pdf>, illustrates what can happen.

The case involved a suit by Union Lumber against the Millers, alleging that about $18,000 had not been paid on their account. The Millers lived in Wisconsin, but their son lived in LaGrande, and the complaint alleged that he made most of the purchases for use on properties owned by the parents. Ms. Miller was served with the summons and complaint at her home, and the parents then sent powers of attorney to the son, authorizing him to file a response. He submitted a response claiming that the purchases had been made for his use on other properties, and should have been charged to his account. (Because he had filed bankruptcy, Union Lumber would not be able to collect from him.) He included his address in LaGrande on the answer. After the answer was filed, Union Lumber managed to serve Mr. Miller by delivery to the parents’ home in hi absence and formally bring him into the suit.

The court, Union Lumber’s lawyer, and a court-appointed arbitrator all began sending correspondence about the case to the son’s address. Unfortunately, he had moved, and, although he notified the post office of his new address, he did not notify the court, the arbitrator, or Union Lumber’s lawyer. The arbitrator set a date for a hearing, and the Millers did not appear. The arbitrator heard only Union Lumber’s case, and ruled for Union Lumber. After the time to request a formal trial expired, the court entered a judgment and sent notice to the son’s address. He acknowledged receiving the notice, and the parents moved to have the judgment set aside, primarily on grounds of excusable neglect and mistake, two reasons Oregon allows for relief. By this time, 11 months had passed since the service on Ms. Miller.

The trial judge ruled for Union Lumber. He decided that the Millers should not have relied on their son, who was not a lawyer, without keeping better tabs on the case and confirming the status of the case with either the court or Union umber’s lawyer. He also decided that because the son received the notice of entry of judgment and had notified the post office of his new address, he did not believe that nothing else regarding the case had been forwarded and received.

The Millers appealed, and the Court of Appeals agreed that they had not been diligent. It ruled, however, that because Mr. Miller had been served in Wisconsin after the answer was filed, his address was the last known address available to Union Lumber, and therefore, Union umber and its lawyers should have been sending documents there instead of to the son’s address. Because of that, it found the arbitration and judgment were procedurally flawed and reversed the trial court.

Union Lumber asked the Oregon Supreme Court to review the case, which it did. Generally speaking, the Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge. The court also ruled that it was unreasonable for the parents to assume their son would forward documents to them. They should have taken further steps to protect their interests in light of the long delay with no apparent contact, and they were not entitled to rely on a nonlawyer (who would not be expected to be familiar with the procedural rules) to ensure their interests were protected. The Supreme Court also confirmed that the trial judge’s skepticism about whether the son actually received documents was reasonably supported by the evidence.

Finally, with regard to the question of whether correspondence should have been sent to the parents directly, the Supreme Court pointed out that the rule requiring delivery or mailing of most documents to a party’s last known address differs from the rule allowing service of initial papers on a party by delivery to their home in their absence. The home does not have to be the same address as that listed in a pleading, so Union Lumber’s lawyers were entitled to mail documents to the son.

If you are involved in a lawsuit, do not entrust your case to a nonlawyer, even if it is a close relative, and even if you give them power of attorney. It is wise to get a lawyer. If you change your address, file a notice with the court. Finally, if you stop hearing about the case from the other side and the court, find out why. Something may be happening that you aren’t aware of, and if you don’t speak up, it could hurt you.

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