November 1, 2013

Laches - Equitable Defense

Invariably a person will make a mistake and a claim will arise. Yes humans are not robots despite what Skynet, the Internet or some late-night informercial tells you. At that time, the claimant is expected to pursue their cause of action in a timely manner. If the litigant unreasonably delays in bringing suit, even though the statute of limitations has not run, they may be denied equitable relief.

The legal term for this affirmative defense is "laches." California case law requires that to prove laches, the defendant must demonstrate unreasonable delay on the part of the plaintiff, plus either prejudice to the defendant because of the delay or disregard by the plaintiff towards the defendant's conduct. Johnson v City of Loma Linda (2000) 24 C4th 61. The issue of laches has to be raised by the defendant, otherwise it is considered waived. Getz v Wallace (1965) 236 CA2d 212. Thus, the defendant cannot answer the suit and then raise the issue of laches later on. In other words, you use or lose it during the initial pleading stages.  

For reference, the statute of limitations is the window of time available to a litigant to assert their right, claim, etc. If the litigant does not assert their claim within the applicable time frame, typically the filing of a lawsuit, their claim is time-barred and is subject to dismissal by the defendant. For example, the statute of limitations for breach of a written contract is 4 years from the date of breach. CCP § 337. This means that the non-breaching party has 4 years from the date of breach to file a lawsuit against the breaching party.

It should be noted that the statute of limitations for various causes of action is not uniform. The statute of limitations for breach of a written contract is 4 years whereas the statute of limitations for breach of an oral contract is 2 years. CCP § 339. Hence, it is critical to know which cause of action is being plead.     

Also of note is the term "affirmative defense." An affirmative defense is where the defendant does not deny the plaintiff's allegations, but rather admits to such conduct but is nonetheless not liable for another reason, such as laches.  Thus even if the defendant conducted themselves in a wrongful way, laches might nonetheless save them if the plaintiff dithered in bringing suit.

Ultimately a plaintiff seeking equitable relief has a few hurdles to keep in mind. First, they need to file their claim within the applicable statute of limitations period. Second, they need to be aware of various equitable defenses such as laches.