The Doctrine of Laches
What is Laches?
Laches is an unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim in a way that prejudices the opposing party and renders the granting of a claim inequitable. Put another way, the doctrine of laches bars relief where the party seeking relief has been guilty of excessive, unjustified delay in asserting rights. Laches is commonly used as an affirmative defense in civil claims. A defendant in a lawsuit would argue that the plaintiff knew his rights had been violated, yet he waited so long to bring suit that circumstances changed such that a claim would be prejudicial to defendant. The doctrine of laches is derived from the maxim that the law helps the vigilant before those who sleep on their rights.
In a way, laches is like a statute of limitations defense in that it punishes a plaintiff for waiting too long to bring suit; however, unlike the statute of limitations, which is a statutory and equitable defense, laches is just an equitable defense. Without getting into the details of what equity means, it is important to know that when you bring an equitable defense, the judge uses his discretion and looks at what is fair and just in determining an outcome.
Elements of Laches
In order to successfully assert a laches defense, the following three elements must be present: (1) a delay in asserting a right or a claim; (2) the delay was not reasonable or excusable; and (3) either acquiescence in the act about which plaintiff complains OR prejudice to the defendant resulting from the delay.
An Unreasonable or Inexcusable Delay
The statute of limitations requires that a breach of contract claim for a written contract be brought within four years from the time the contract was breached or four years from the time when the breach should have been discovered. A defense of laches, on the other hand, does not have an inflexible rule for determining what length of time constitutes an unreasonable delay. However, a great lapse of time, especially where the plaintiff had knowledge of his or her rights, can often be sufficient to create a presumption of inequity and may justify judgment for the defendant. Generally, though, the trial court looks at the particular facts of each case when deciding what constitutes and unreasonable or inexcusable delay. This, of course, leaves a lot of room for the court to exercise its discretion.
Aside from an unreasonable delay, a defendant needs to show that the plaintiff either acquiesced in the acts for which he or she complains or there is or will be prejudice to the defendant. As with laches in general, the court looks to the particular facts of each case to determine if there was acquiescence by the plaintiff. Acquiescence can be a waiver or abandonment of rights. The court may also look to the conduct of the plaintiff and, if it looks as though the plaintiff assented to the existing state of things, that alone may be sufficient to deprive him or her of relief. It is necessary to show that Plaintiff had full knowledge of defendant’s wrongful acts and their injurious consequences. The acquiescence had to be voluntary and for an unreasonable length of time (as discussed above).
Prejudice to the Defendant
The defense of laches depends not only on a plaintiff's delay in asserting a right, but also, ordinarily, on an injury to the defendant occasioned by that delay (if you cannot prove acquiescence, discussed above).
Prejudice or injury occurs when a plaintiff, by his or her conduct or by his or her negligence and delay, induced or permitted a defendant to perform, or to refrain from performing, a given act, which caused the defendant to sustain an injury or could cause the defendant to sustain an injury in the event that relief is granted to plaintiff.
Prejudice is never presumed. The defendant must affirmatively demonstrate how he or she has been prejudiced by showing that he or she did, or omitted to do, something that detrimentally altered his or her position with respect to plaintiff’s claim. A defendant’s altered position, because of the plaintiff’s negligence in bringing a claim against defendant, is the foundation of the doctrine of laches.
Note that, regardless of whether a defendant’s altered position was a result of the plaintiff's delay alone or stemmed from a voluntary act of the defendant, prejudice to the defendant will nonetheless bar relief to the plaintiff.
In conclusion, the doctrine of laches can be a very powerful tool for a defendant. All the elements of laches must be present, however, or the defense cannot be maintained. As always, please be sure to seek the consultation of an experienced attorney in your area to determine if laches is applicable to your case.