11.05.2007

Sixth Circuit Discusses Split Re Availability of Laches in Cases Involving Statutes with Limitations Provisions

Per Chirco v. Crosswinds Communities, Inc., 474 F.3d 227 (6th Cir. 2007) [This is a case from earlier this year but I thought it was worth posting about it now for reader's information]:

The Sixth Circuit has carved out a middle ground between the Fourth Circuit's strict prohibition on application of the laches doctrine in cases involving a statute with an explicit limitations provision and the somewhat more expansive application of the doctrine by the Ninth Circuit. . . . [I]n numerous decisions, not involving claims made pursuant to the Copyright Act, we have affirmed the rule that if the “statute of limitation has not elapsed, there is a strong presumption that plaintiff's delay in bringing the suit for monetary relief is reasonable. Only rarely should laches bar a case before the ... statute has run.” . . .

We have not, however, ruled out invocation of the equitable doctrine when an applicable statute otherwise references an explicit limitations period. Although we have sought to restrict such use to the most compelling of cases, we have explicitly recognized that the doctrine of laches can be applied in copyright infringement cases. In Hoste v. Radio Corporation of America, 654 F.2d 11, 12 (6th Cir.1981), for example, even when we reversed a district court ruling that barred recovery for the plaintiff by application of laches within the statute of limitations period, we did not rule that the laches doctrine was always inapplicable in such a situation. Rather, the panel simply noted that “[t]he defendants filed no affidavits in support of their motion for summary judgment. Thus there was no evidence of prejudice to them by reason of the plaintiff's delay in filing this action.” Id. The court therefore remanded the matter for further development of the salient issues. Additionally, in Broadcast Music, Inc. v. Roger Miller Music, Inc., 396 F.3d 762, 783 n. 13 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 126 S.Ct. 374, 163 L.Ed.2d 162 (2005), we noted, “Although circuits are split as to whether laches is available as a defense under the Copyright Act, laches is available as an affirmative defense in a copyright action in the Sixth Circuit.” (Citations omitted.)

The plaintiffs urge us to reject that proposition, arguing that in Broadcast Music, the statement is mere dicta. Perhaps so, but in this instance, it constitutes dicta that is fated to be followed. As has the Seventh Circuit, we conclude that a flat proscription such as that invoked by the Fourth Circuit against the defense of laches in cases involving a federal statutory claim is both unnecessary and unwise. The Seventh Circuit, presented with a claim pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461, reasoned that “just as various tolling doctrines can be used to lengthen the period for suit specified in a statute of limitations, so laches can be used to contract it.” Teamsters & Employers Welfare Trust of Illinois v. Gorman Bros. Ready Mix, 283 F.3d 877, 881 (7th Cir.2002). Indeed, laches can be argued “regardless of whether the suit is at law or in equity, because, as with many equitable defenses, the defense of laches is equally available in suits at law.” Id. We have little hesitation in adopting the Seventh Circuit's philosophy as the sounder approach.

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