Limiting Legal Remedies: An Analysis of Unclean Hands

70 Pages Posted: 8 Apr 2010

See all articles by T. Leigh Anenson

T. Leigh Anenson

University of Maryland - Robert H. Smith School of Business

Date Written: April 3, 2010


This article analyzes the extension of the equitable defense of unclean hands to damages actions across federal and state jurisdictions in order to unify this fragmented area of law. The doctrine of “clean hands” (unclean hands) justifies dismissal of a lawsuit where the opposing party has engaged in illegal, unethical or unconscionable conduct relating to the case. The defense potentially applies to all claims, statutory and common law. It is one of a few equitable defenses, however, that courts have traditionally limited to lawsuits seeking equitable remedies (i.e. injunctions, specific performance). Thirty years ago, certain courts began recognizing unclean hands in lawsuits requesting legal remedies (i.e. monetary damages). Despite the divisive decisions on its applicability, there has been surprisingly little examination of the defense in damages actions until my recent research. (Anenson 2008; Anenson 2010 in press) This article extends those analyses by providing a fuller explanation of unclean hands by looking at the defense’s doctrinal underpinnings. It describes the arguments over the legal status of unclean hands and evaluates those justifications in an effort to aid courts in their application of the defense in the future. The study and insight regarding the reception of unclean hands into the most prevalent form of relief in the US also contributes to the worldwide fusion debate (“fusion wars”) concerning the role of equity in legal actions.

Keywords: unclean hands, "clean hands" doctrine, fusion of law and equity, equity, equitable defenses, remedies

JEL Classification: K19, K39, K4

Suggested Citation

Anenson, T. Leigh, Limiting Legal Remedies: An Analysis of Unclean Hands (April 3, 2010). Kentucky Law Journal, Vol. 99, 2010, Available at SSRN:

T. Leigh Anenson (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - Robert H. Smith School of Business ( email )

College Park, MD 20742-1815
United States
440-336-4468 (Phone)

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