Every so often, that ancient and seemingly out-dated distinction between legal and equitable claims (and defenses) derived in the English Chancery Courts hundreds of years ago rears its head and reminds all attorneys that those distinctions between legal and equitable claims are still relevant.

As one ofCalifornia’s thirty-nine (39) “Maxims of Jurisprudence” boldly proclaims, “[t]he law helps the vigilant, before those who sleep on their rights.”  (Cal.Civ. Code § 3527.)  One aspect of the proverbial “sleeping on one’s rights” is captured in the legal doctrine of the statute of limitations,  which even most laypersons are familiar with.  Statutes of limitations are, appropriately, identified in various statutes inCaliforniaand are considered applicable to common law claims, for example claims for breach of contract or personal injury.

Another defense that can be asserted when faced with a lack of vigilance is the equitable defense of “laches.”  Laches has been defined as, “[s]uch neglect or omission to assert a right, as, taken in conjunction with the lapse of time, more or less great, and other circumstances causing prejudice to an adverse party, operates as a bar in a court of equity.”  (Gallaher v. Iowa Oil Co. (1934) 139 Cal.App. 100, 104-05.)

As a practical matter, laches is almost also plead as an affirmative defense in litigation filed in California State Courts.  However, the equitable defense of laches does not apply to every litigation matter.  As an equitable doctrine, it should only apply to cases that historically derive from equitable claims as opposed to common law claims.

In the latest published decision addressing easements in California, the court of appeal ruled on the application of the equitable defense of laches to a claim of a prescriptive easement.  (Connolly v. Trabue (2012) 204 Cal.App.4th 1154 (“Connolly”).)  As typical in many disputes involving easements, the matter was tried before a trial judge without a jury.  The trial judge found that the plaintiff had established the elements of a prescriptive easement, but held that the claim for a prescriptive easement was barred by laches.  The trial court agreed that the claimant had used the property from 1995 until 2008, but apparently believed that the claimant had lost their right to obtain a prescriptive easement because they were not vigilant in asserting their right to a prescriptive easement.

The Connolly court disagreed and reversed the trial court.  First, the court cited to a similar case in which the court held that laches did not apply to a claim of adverse possession.  (Marriage v. Keener (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 186.)  There, the court recognized the interplay between an intruder, who may ultimately assert a claim of adverse possession, and the property owner, who should bring suit within the five year prescriptive period or risk losing the property.  “California law does not require a plaintiff to bring an action to perfect his or her claim of adverse possession. Rather, it is the record owner—not the intruder—who must bring an action within five years after adverse possession commences in order to re-cover the property. (Code Civ. Proc., § 318.)”  (Id. at 190-91.)  And as a practical matter, the longer the period of time the intruder waits to assert a claim of adverse possession, the stronger the claim of adversity.

Second, the court concluded that an action to perfect a prescriptive easement is an action at law, not equity, and it is “well-established” that laches applies to equitable actions, not actions at law.  (Connolly, at 1164.)  The court confirmed that even if the request for a prescriptive easement is made through an action for quiet title or for declaratory relief, it was still an action at law and not equity.  (Id.)

Litigating disputes over long-term use of property involve important considerations regarding statutes of limitations and, if appropriate, the equitable doctrine of laches.  In any action involving real property in which a plaintiff or a cross-complainant seeks a range of remedies from quiet title to damages to an injunction, it is important to consider the effect of time-limiting provisions.  In California, the Connolly court affirmed that the doctrine of laches does not apply, and cannot be asserted to defeat, a claim for a prescriptive easement.