The Lawletter Vol 43 No 1
Paul Ferrer, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
Laches is "'a defense developed by courts of equity' to protect defendants against 'unreasonable, prejudicial delay in commencing suit.'" SCA Hygiene Prods. Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Prods., LLC, 137 S. Ct. 954, 960 (2017) (quoting Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962, 1967, 1973 (2014)). It is a familiar statement of the law that laches generally does not apply when the statute of limitations applicable to a legal claim has not run. But many state courts continue to indicate that, in some circumstances, "laches may bar a legal claim even if the statutory period of limitations has not yet expired." Tenneco Inc. v. Amerisure Mut. Ins. Co., 281 Mich. App. 429, 456-57, 761 N.W.2d 846, 863-64 (2008); see also Veysey v. Nelson, 2017 UT App 77, ¶ 7, 397 P.3d 846, 848 ("[B]ecause laches may apply in situations where the statute of limitations has not yet run, the existence of a statute of limitations does not … automatically preclude application of the laches doctrine."), cert. denied, 400 P.3d 1046 (Utah 2017); Bldg. & Constr. Trades Council of N. Nev. v. State ex rel. Pub. Works Bd., 108 Nev. 605, 611, 836 P.2d 633, 637 (1992) ("Especially strong circumstances must exist . . . to sustain a defense of laches when the statute of limitations has not run."). However, that no longer appears to be the case in federal court, at least with respect to a federal claim as to which Congress has expressly supplied a statute of limitations.
In Petrella, the U.S. Supreme Court held that laches cannot defeat a damages claim brought within the three-year period prescribed by the Copyright Act's statute of limitations. 134 S. Ct. at 1972-75 (applying 17 U.S.C. § 507(b) (requiring a copyright holder claiming infringement to file suit "within three years after the claim accrued")); see also SCA Hygiene, 137 S. Ct. at 961 ("We saw in this language a congressional judgment that a claim filed within three years of accrual cannot be dismissed on timeliness grounds."). In so holding, the Court spoke in very broad terms: "[I]n the face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress, laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief." Petrella, 134 S. Ct. at 1974. Petrella's holding rested on both separation-of-powers principles and the traditional role of laches in equity. Since