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Case Law Update: The Doctrine of Laches

Posted Thursday, August 1, 2019 by Christopher L. Thayer

In a recent procedurally complex case involving foreclosure of a lien by a condominium association for unpaid dues, the Court of Appeals (Division 1) in Eastlake Lofts Condominium Association v. Hoover (No. 78266-5-1) recently addressed the doctrine of Laches. Laches is an equitable doctrine, typically raised as an affirmative defense by a defendant in a civil dispute, whereby a party may be barred from raising a claim due to an unreasonable delay in pursuing the claim.

Laches is an equitable defense. The doctrine applies when a defendant affirmatively establishes "(1) knowledge by plaintiff of facts constituting a cause of action or a reasonable opportunity to discover such facts; (2) unreasonable delay by plaintiff in commencing an action; and (3) damage to defendant resulting from the delay in bringing the action." Davidson v. State,116 Wn.2d 13, 25, 802 P.2d 1374 (1991).

"To constitute laches there must not only be a delay in the assertion of a claim but also some change of condition must have occurred which would make it inequitable to enforce it." Waldrip v. Olympia Oyster Co., 40 Wn.2d 469, 477, 244 P.2d 273 (1952). "[W]hen asserted in opposition to the interest of a landowner, [laches] must be proved by clear and convincing evidence." Arnold v. Melani, 75 Wn.2d 143, 148, 449 P.2d 800, 450 P.2d 815 (1968). "Generally, laches depends upon the particular facts and circumstances of each case." Lopp v. Peninsula Sch. Dist. No. 401, 90 Wn.2d 754, 759, 585 P.2d 801 (1978).

A court of equity moves upon consideration of conscience, good faith and reasonable diligence. Knowledge and unreasonable delay are essential elements of the defense of laches. The precise time that may elapse between the act complained of as wrongful and the bringing of suit to prevent or correct the wrong does not, in itself, determine the question of laches. What constitutes unreasonable delay is a question of fact dependent largely upon the particular circumstances. No rigid rule has ever been laid down. Stewart v. Johnston, 30 Wn.2d 925, 935-36, 195 P.2d 119 (1948).

In Eastlake Lofts, the Court of Appeals ultimately ruled there were issues of disputed fact with regards to application of the doctrine of laches and reversed the trial court’s decision. The underlying facts of this case are quite convoluted so I will not got into detail in this summary article, but it reinforces our standard advice, which is to investigate any potential claims promptly and retain counsel in order to ensure your rights are protected. If you have any questions about this case or the doctrine of Laches, please feel free to contact attorney Chris Thayer at (206) 805-1494 or CThayer@PivotalLawGroup.com.