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New Jersey Supreme Court Jettison's Doctrine of Laches

In Fox v. Millman, A-39/40-10, Justice Helen Hoens authoring for a unanimous Court wrote:

"Substituting the equitable doctrine of laches for the clear guidance expressed in statutes of limitations would create a chaotic and unpredictable patchwork in which the only certainty would be the inconsistency of outcomes as different judges, or, as in this matter, juries, evaluate timeliness individually[.]"

Likewise, "even were we to agree in principle that laches might be applied so as to shorten an otherwise permissible period for initiation of litigation, we would nonetheless conclude that only the rarest of circumstances and only overwhelming equitable concerns would allow for that result[.]" (emphasis added).

Similarly, the Court's syllabus also notes:

"The United States Supreme Court has observed that if a suit in equity raises claims as to which there is an applicable statute of limitations, it does not preclude the defense of laches, provided there has been unreasonable delay within the time limited by the statute.  Patterson v. Hewitt, 195 U.S. 309, 318
(1904).  On the other hand, if the suit is an action at law, the United States Supreme Court has held that applying laches within the term of the governing statute of limitations is no defense at law.  United States v. Mack, 295 U.S. 480, 489 (1935).  This Court has traditionally conformed to this distinction between law and equity in considering the application of laches."

***

" Although Lavin v. Hackensack Bd. of Educ., 90 N.J. 145 (1982), was limited to applying laches to a claim not governed by any statute of limitations, the trial and appellate courts relied on a footnote in Lavin, which discussed applying laches to defeat a claim despite the fact that the time fixed by an analogous statute of limitations had not passed, to conclude that it was appropriate to utilize laches in this case.  The Court disagrees.  Causes of action brought at law are governed in the first instance by statutes of limitations that have been fixed by the Legislature to create defined and regularly applicable periods against which to determine timeliness.  Laches, on the other hand, remains an equitable doctrine, utilized to achieve fairness."

Full decision after the jump...