Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

In A New Jersey Family Court, What Does Laches Mean?

The laches defense is the legal doctrine that a legal right or claim will not be enforced or allowed in court if there is a long delay in asserting the right or claim. It is a defense made by a lawyer in cases where someone seeks equitable relief in the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey.  In practical terms, a judge should not rule in the favor of a party if their lack of diligence in enforcing their litigant’s rights caused the problem in the first place.  As this is a complex area of divorce law, this represents another reason that you should hire an attorney (or law firm) whose only focus are divorce and family law cases.

This defense is based on the principle that equity aids the vigilant, not those who wait to exercise their rights. The passage of time can result in the loss of witnesses, evidence, and thus a loss of a fair chance for someone to defend him or herself. If a defending party can prove the existence of a disadvantage based on fact that he or she believed no suit would be filed because the passage of time, the case may be dismissed in the interest of fairness. That said, because New Jersey Family Part courts are courts of equity, the defense of laches does not apply to all claims and circumstances.

 One policy of equity is the doctrine of unclean hands, which states that a court should not give relief to a wrongdoer in a suit who acted against the principles of fairness. When someone wants relief from a result of their own wrong doing, where that same person’s unclean hands have cause the very subject matter of the suit, recovery is barred. Similarly, fraud will not be tolerated by a court of equity. This is because a court of equity, such as a Family Part court, should not be used as a tool for injustice. As such, if fraud, bad faith, or unconscionable acts by a moving party are the basis for a lawsuit, fairness will not allow a court of equity to grant that wrongdoing party relief.

In Rolnick v. Rolnick, Christine Rolnick’s claimed that her ex-husband, Jerome Rolnick, was not entitled to a modification of the property settlement agreement incorporated into their final judgment of divorce, he did not completely report and disclose his income. She alleged that he owned a Maaco Auto Body Franchise which he sold in 1984, which was never reported on his income tax return, and thus not used in calculating his support obligation. Christine further claimed that Jerome did not reveal his true income that applied to the supplemental income provision during the time leading up to a Lepis motion for modification based on changed circumstances. She alleged that she relied on Jerome to calculate the supplemental income amount that was due, because past court orders prevented the disclosure of his income tax returns before 1984. Christine first saw his 1984 tax return at trial when it was made available. She argued that the actual income on the 1984 tax return showed that she should have receive a bonus payment in the amount of $ 4,819, when she only received $ 1,974.

The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that, usually, Christine would have been required to raise unclean hands or fraud as a defense to Jerome’s request for modification at the plenary hearing that the July 1991 order was based on. She failed to raise these defenses, until the motion that resulted in the November 1991 order they the appellate panel was currently reviewing. However, in Rolnick, it was apparent that the Family Part court would have been unwillingly to review her allegations of fraud, because the judge had declined to hear the claim of changed circumstances that was very closely related to this issue. As such, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that Christine did not have a duty to raise a claim that she knew was going to be rejected, and she appropriately raised the claim of fraud before the Family Part court with the subsequent motion.

On the subsequent motion, the Family Part court considered Christine’s claims of fraud, but held that the doctrine of laches barred any judicial determination on the claim. The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that laches is a valid defense in the event of a delay that is inexcusable and unexplained, and the other party has suffered a disadvantage because of it. That said, in courts of equity, like Family Part courts, the doctrine of laches is never to be applied to a claim of fraud. In Rolnick, Jerome’s alleged fraud, prevented Christine from learning that the bonus payments were not in the full amount.

The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that the Supreme Court of New Jersey has held on numerous occasion that this state’s public policy about marriage and divorce is derived from the Divorce Act of 1972, New Jersey Statute 2A:34-1. The epicenter of this policy is equity, fairness, flexibility, and a concern for happiness and welfare of the litigants involved. One such policy of equity is the doctrine of unclean hands, which states that a court should not give relief to a wrongdoer in a suit who acted against the principles of fairness. When someone wants relief from a result of their own wrong doing, where that same person’s unclean hands have cause the very subject matter of the suit, recovery is barred. This is because a court of equity, such as a Family Part court, should not be used as a tool for injustice. As such, if fraud, bad faith, or unconscionable acts by a moving party are the basis for a lawsuit, fairness will not allow a court of equity to grant that wrongdoing party relief.

Similarly, fraud will not be tolerated by a court of equity. Equitable fraud is a misrepresentation of fact, made by a party who knows that it is false, with the intent that the other party will rely on it, and it results in the other party relying on it to his or her detriment. In proving equitable fraud, the element of scienter, or knowledge of falsehood, and an intent to gain an undue advantage, is not required.

Furthermore, it is well established that a defending party is not entitled to the benefit of laches when the inequity is the result of that same party’s own actions. When a person raising a defense of laches, has caused or contributed to the delay, he or she cannot use that delay to his or her advantage.

As a result, the New Jersey Appellate Division stated that the Family Part court should have considered Christine’s claims of unclean hands and fraud, that could have potentially barred Jerome’s motion for modification, at either the plenary hearing, or the subsequent motion hearing. A remand, or re-hearing, was warranted on the issues of Jerome’s unclean hands, or fraud, because of the principle that all disputes of material facts have to be resolved by testimony. The appellate panel held that at the remand, or re-hearing, the Family Part court should focus on whether or not Jerome disclosed and reported his income fully, as they related to any past payments.

Please reach out to my law firm if you need help.