A Little Bit of Laches Goes a Long Way: Notes on Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
18 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2014 Last revised: 22 Jan 2014
Date Written: January 8, 2014
This essay considers two questions about how laches fits into contemporary American law. One is whether it applies to all claims or only to claims for equitable remedies. The other is how it is affected by a federal statute of limitations. Is laches displaced, on the theory that Congress has spoken by enacting the statute of limitations, so that it would violate separation of powers for a court to substitute its own equitable doctrines? Or does laches remain and coexist with the statute of limitations, on the theory that Congress legislates against the background of traditional equitable principles? These questions are squarely raised by Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., a pending case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
After examining the doctrine, history, and theory of laches, this essay reaches two conclusions. First, laches is and should remain an equitable defense. Second, laches is available unless Congress makes a clear statement abrogating it, and the mere enactment of a statute of limitations is not a clear statement of abrogation. Given these conclusions, the Court should take a middle course in Petrella: Retain the defense of laches, but apply it only to claims for equitable remedies.
Keywords: laches, equity, separation of powers, statutory interpretation, copyright, remedies, equitable defenses
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