You Snooze, You Lose. What is Laches?
Author: Attorney Peter J. Curran
Laches is a legal theory which can be raised as an affirmative defense to a claim in which the person making the claim unreasonably delayed in asserting their claim. There are three elements of laches: (1) unreasonable delay by the party seeking relief, (2) lack of knowledge or acquiescence by the party asserting laches that a claim for relief was forthcoming, and (3) prejudice to the party asserting laches caused by the delay. It is a defense rooted in “equity” or general fairness.
The doctrine of laches is different than statutes of limitation, which create a statutory bar to bringing an action if it is not brought within a certain time set by statute. Laches can apply even if the claim is not barred by the applicable statute of limitations.
For example, let’s assume the following scenario:
- Two parties enter into a land contract for the purchase of real estate over a period of 25 years which calls for monthly payments.
- The purchasing party does not make any payments.
- The selling party does not contact the purchasing party regarding the lack of payment for 20 years and does not give the purchasing party any indication that it intends to take any action against the non-paying party.
- During the 20 year period, the purchaser dies.
- After 20 years, the selling party commences a legal action for non-payment against the purchaser’s estate.
Here, there would be an argument that waiting 20 years after someone misses the first payment (and all subsequent payments) is unreasonable. Without any notice or communication from the seller to the buyer, there would be no reason for the buyer to know that a claim was coming. Because the purchaser has passed away, the purchaser’s estate would be prejudiced or harmed by that person’s inability to testify regarding the circumstances of the matter.
In a case like this, a judge could find that the elements of laches are met and bar the seller’s claim. As an “equitable” doctrine, the judge has discretion regarding whether or not he or she believes that the elements have been satisfied.
In summary, even if the applicable statute of limitations has not run, the defense of laches may be available to bar a claim which was brought after an unreasonable amount of time, assuming the other elements are met.
Because of the many factors that go into presenting a defense based on the doctrine of laches, you should discuss the matter with an experienced attorney.