Laches (//, LA-chəz, like "latches"; //, LAY-chəz; Law French: "remissness", "slackness", from Old French laschesse) is an "unreasonable delay pursuing a right or claim... in a way that prejudices the [opposing] party". When asserted in litigation, it is an equitable defense, that is, a defense to a claim for an equitable remedy. The person invoking laches is asserting that an opposing party has "slept on its rights," and that, as a result of this delay, witnesses and/or evidence may have been lost or no longer available, and circumstances have changed such that it is no longer just to grant the plaintiff's original claim. Put another way, failure to assert one’s rights in a timely manner can result in a claim being barred by laches. Laches is associated with one of the maxims of equity:
- Vigilantibus non dormientibus æquitas subvenit.
- Equity aids the vigilant, not the sleeping ones (that is, those who sleep on their rights).
The essential element of laches is that there has been an unreasonable delay by the plaintiff in bringing the claim. Because laches is an equitable defense, it is ordinarily applied only to claims for equitable relief (such as injunctions), and not to claims for legal relief (such as damages). Sometimes courts will also require that the party invoking the doctrine has changed its position as a result of the delay, but that requirement is more typical of the related (but more stringent) defense of estoppel.
A claim of laches requires the following elements:
- A delay in bringing the lawsuit
- which is unreasonable
- and which prejudices the defendant
The period of delay begins when the plaintiff knew, or reasonably ought to have known, that the cause of action existed. The period of delay ends only when the lawsuit is formally filed. Informing or warning the defendant of the cause of action (for example by sending a cease-and-desist letter or merely threatening a lawsuit) does not, by itself, end the period of delay.
The delay in initiating the lawsuit must be unreasonable. The courts have recognized the following causes of delay as reasonable:
- the exhaustion of remedies through the administrative process
- the evaluation and preparation of a complicated claim
- to determine whether the scope of proposed infringement will justify the cost of litigation
By contrast, it is not reasonable to delay a lawsuit in order to "capitalize on the value of the infringer's labor". In Danjaq v. Sony, the Ninth Circuit decided that a screenwriter who waited for a film studio to publicize and distribute a film based on a script he allegedly owned had delayed his lawsuit unreasonably.
The unreasonable delay must prejudice the defendant. Examples of such prejudice include:
- evidence favorable to the defendant becoming lost or degraded
- witnesses favorable to the defendant dying or losing their memories
- the defendant making economic decisions (e.g. investing in a movie or a manufacturing process) that it would not have done, had the lawsuit been filed earlier.
A defense lawyer raising the defense of laches against a motion for injunctive relief (a form of equitable relief) might argue that the plaintiff comes "waltzing in at the eleventh hour" when it is now too late to grant the relief sought, at least not without causing great harm that the plaintiff could have avoided. In certain types of cases (for example, cases involving time-sensitive matters, such as elections), a delay of even a few days is likely to be met with a defense of laches, even where the applicable statute of limitations might allow the type of action to be commenced within a much longer time period. In courts in the United States, laches has often been applied even where a statute of limitations exists, although there is a division of authority on this point.
If a court does accept the laches defense, it can decide either to deny the request for equitable relief or to narrow the requitable relief that it would otherwise give. Even if the court denies equitable relief to a plaintiff because of laches, the plaintiff may still have a claim for legal relief if the statute of limitations has not run out.
Under the United States Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, laches is an affirmative defense, which means that the burden of asserting laches is on the party responding to the claim to which it applies. “When the defense of laches is clear on the face of the complaint, and where it is clear that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts to avoid the insuperable bar, a court may consider the defense on a motion to dismiss.” Solow v. Nine West Group, 2001 WL 736794, *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 29, 2001); Simons v. United States, 452 F.2d 1110, 1116 (2d Cir. 1971) (affirming Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal based, in part, on laches where papers “reveal no reason for the inordinate and prejudicial delay”). The United State Supreme Court case Costello v. United States (1961) is often cited for a definition of laches.
The laches defense does not apply if the claimant was a minor during the time that the claim was not brought, so a party can bring a claim against an historical injustice when they reach their majority.
Compared to statute of limitations
The defense of laches resembles a statute of limitations, since both are concerned with ensuring that plaintiffs bring their claims in a timely fashion. But laches and a statute of limitations are not identical. A statute of limitations is concerned only with the time that has passed. Laches is concerned with the reasonableness of the delay in a particular situation. It is therefore more case-specific and more focused on the equitable conduct of the plaintiff. Those considerations are not unique to the laches defense, because they are characteristic of equitable reasoning and equitable remedies.
In Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (2014), the United States Supreme Court rebuffed the defendant's claim that laches barred a copyright infringement suit, because Congress had established a detailed statutory scheme including a statute of limitations.
In the Virginia Republican primary for the 2012 US presidential election, several candidates did not appear on the ballot because they failed to obtain sufficient signatures in time. Four of the unsuccessful candidates—Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum—sued, claiming that restrictions on the persons allowed to gather signatures were unconstitutional. Their claim was dismissed by the district court on the grounds of laches, because, in the words of the appeals court:
plaintiffs could have brought their constitutional challenge to Virginia’s residency requirement for petition circulators as soon they were able to circulate petitions in the summer of 2011, but instead chose to wait until after the December 22, 2011 deadline before seeking relief. The district court concluded this delay “displayed an unreasonable and inexcusable lack of diligence” on plaintiffs’ part that “has significantly harmed the defendants.” Specifically, it determined that the delayed nature of this suit had already transformed the Board’s orderly schedule for printing and mailing absentee ballots “into a chaotic attempt to get absentee ballots out on time.” The district court consequently held that laches barred their request for relief.
The appeals court upheld the dismissal on grounds of laches, even though, it added, the challenge would likely have succeeded had it been brought in a timely fashion.
- Garner, Bryan A., ed. (2009). Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed.). ISBN 0-314-19949-7.
- "Laches". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary laches
- Bray, Samuel (2014). "A Little Bit of Laches Goes a Long Way: Notes on Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.". Vanderbilt Law Review En Banc 67: 1.
- Kathryn E. Fort, "The New Laches: Creating Title Where None Existed," 16 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 357 (2009).
- USPTO, "Amanda Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Philip Gover, Jillian Pappan, and Courtney Tsotigh v. Pro-Football, Inc."
- full text of case
- Daniel Fisher, "Supreme Court Upholds 'Raging Bull' Suit Vs. MGM", Forbes, May 19, 2014.