THE NATURE CONSERVANCY v. WILDER CORPORATION OF DELAWARE (September 1, 2011)

The Wilder Corporation of Delaware owned 6,660 acres of farmland in central Illinois. In 2000, it sold the property to The Nature Conservatory, which intended to use it as a nature preserve. As part of the agreement, Wilder promised to remove hazardous and toxic substances from the property. The Conservancy brought suit in early 2006 on a number of contract matters. During discovery, it discovered petroleum contaminated soil on the property and amended its complaint. Judge Mihm (C.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the Conservatory. Wilder appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Rovner, Wood, and Tinder affirmed. The only issue on appeal is Wilder's contention that the petroleum contamination claim should be barred by the equitable doctrine of laches because it was filed seven years after the property transfer and five years after Wilder vacated the property. The Court noted that, in Illinois, laches will bar equitable relief when a party fails to assert a right over a period of time and causes prejudice to the other party. Here, the Conservancy's claim for relief is not in equity but for damages. Although the Court conceded that Illinois’ distinction between law and equity has evolved over the years, it did not believe that an Illinois court would apply laches to a simple breach of contract case for money damages between private actors. It concluded that it did not have to definitively answer that question, however, as it found that Wilder's defense failed for lack of prejudice. The Court noted that the record was devoid of any evidence of prejudice. Although Wilder claimed that the delay prevented him from showing prejudice, he never attempted to discover any facts that would support his claim of prejudice, in discovery or otherwise.