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David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Thomas F. Eagleton federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis

The Thomas F. Eagleton federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

The 1991 collapse of Popkin & Stern may be a distant memory, but the onetime Clayton law firm lives on in U.S. Bankruptcy Court at least until Wednesday.

That’s when a hearing is scheduled to terminate the firm’s liquidating trust. Trustee Robert Blackwell, an O’Fallon, Missouri, attorney, plans one last distribution of $36,705 to the law firm’s unsecured creditors, who will ultimately have collected about 55 percent of the $2.5 million the court said they were owed.

Then, according to a court filing, Blackwell will spend $9,340 to wind down the trust, pay himself a final commission of $1,135 and close Popkin & Stern’s books for good.

It’s a low-key final act for a case that produced high drama almost from the day in March 1992 when creditors forced the defunct firm into bankruptcy.

There was a 12-hour court session when 40 former partners, each of whom could have been held liable for the firm’s debts, agreed to make payments toward a settlement with creditors. One partner’s 3,000-bottle wine collection had to be auctioned off.

Ronald Lurie, the firm’s former managing partner, was convicted of perjury and sent to prison after lying to a judge about the proceeds from the sale of a house. At least five sets of litigation followed as the trustee sought to track down and seize Lurie’s assets, with some cases lasting for years and going to federal appeals court.

One dispute involved a $200,000 painting called “Apache Renegades.” Lurie’s wife and sons wanted some money from the painting’s sale, but the appellate court turned them down in 2003.

The court docket shows no big disputes in recent years. After the bankruptcy case was administratively closed in 2004, the trust made a series of payments to creditors, the most recent of which was for $29,879 in 2009.

Blackwell did not return calls seeking comment on the case.

Wendi Alper-Pressman, who filed the involuntary bankruptcy petition on behalf of creditors in 1992, said she thought the litigation with Lurie was the main reason why the case took so long to resolve.

“In the best of all worlds, this would have taken six or seven years,” she said. “Why it took 27 years, I can’t tell you, but this would have to be up there with the longest cases.”

Spencer Desai, another attorney who was involved in the case’s early years, can’t remember any other case of similar duration.

“In this district, to my knowledge it’s the longest,” he said. “I don’t think anyone anticipated it would stretch out this long.”

Law firm bankruptcies tend to last longer than other cases, Washington University law professor Dan Keating says. The concept of joint and several liability can mean fights with partners over assets, and the firm itself can claim income from unresolved cases.

Still, 27 years is extraordinary. “Law firm assets are the kind of thing that it might take awhile to collect,” Keating says. “That explains the first 10 years of the case but it doesn’t really explain the next 15. At some point in time, maybe there just wasn’t much money there and nobody cared.”

Of all the courtroom drama, the happiest moment may have been during the long partner-liability hearing in 1993. Norman Pressman, a former Popkin & Stern partner, stepped to the lectern and asked Wendi Alper, the creditors’ attorney, to marry him.

She said yes. Someday soon, they may finally be able to say their marriage has lasted longer than the case that included their engagement.

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