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Estoppel

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A legal principle that bars a party from denying or alleging a certain fact owing to that party's previous conduct, allegation, or denial.

The rationale behind estoppel is to prevent injustice owing to inconsistency or fraud. There are two general types of estoppel: equitable and legal.

Equitable Estoppel

Equitable estoppel, sometimes known as estoppel in pais, protects one party from being harmed by another party's voluntary conduct. Voluntary conduct may be an action, silence, acquiescence, or concealment of material facts. One example of equitable estoppel due to a party's acquiescence is found in Lambertini v. Lambertini, 655 So. 2d 142 (Fla. 3d Dist. Ct. App. 1995). In the late 1950s, Olga, who was married to another man, and Frank Lambertini met and began living together in Argentina. Olga and Frank hired an attorney in Buenos Aires, who purported to divorce Olga from her first husband and marry her to Frank pursuant to Mexican law. The Lambertinis began what they thought was a married life together, and soon produced two children. In 1968, they moved to the United States and became Florida residents.

In 1992, Olga sought a divorce from Frank. She petitioned the Florida court for sole possession of the marital home and temporary alimony, which the court granted. Frank sought a rehearing, arguing that the Mexican marriage was not a valid legal marriage and was therefore void. Though Frank won with this argument in the trial court, the appellate court reversed, holding that Frank was equitably estopped from arguing that the Mexican marriage was invalid. According to the appellate court, Frank and Olga had held themselves out as a married couple for more than 30 years, lived together, raised two children, and owned property jointly. Both Frank and Olga apparently believed all along that the Mexican marriage was legal, and it was only when Olga filed for divorce that Frank discovered and chose to rely on its invalidity. The appellate court granted Olga her divorce, the house, and the temporary alimony. Frank's acquiescence for three decades—holding himself out as being married to Olga—prevented him from denying the marriage's existence.

There are several specific types of equitable estoppel. Promissory estoppel is a contract law doctrine. It occurs when a party reasonably relies on the promise of another party, and because of the reliance is injured or damaged. For example, suppose a restaurant agrees to pay a bakery to make 50 pies. The bakery has only two employees. It takes them two days to make the pies, and they are unable to bake or sell anything else during that time. Then, the restaurant decides not to buy the pies, leaving the bakery with many more pies than it can sell and a loss of profit from the time spent baking them. A court will likely apply the promissory estoppel doctrine and require the restaurant to fulfill its promise and pay for the pies.

An estoppel certificate is a written declaration signed by a party who attests, for the benefit of another party, to the accuracy of certain facts described in the declaration. The estoppel certificate prevents the party who signs it from later challenging the validity of those facts. This type of document is perhaps most common in the context of mortgages, or home loans. If one bank seeks to purchase mortgages owned by another bank, the purchasing bank may request the borrowers, or homeowners, to sign an estoppel certificate establishing (1) that the mortgage is valid, (2) the amount of principal and interest due as of the date of the certificate, and (3) that no defenses exist that would affect the value of the mortgage. After signing this certificate, the borrower cannot dispute those facts.

Estoppel by laches precludes a party from bringing an action when the party knowingly failed to claim or enforce a legal right at the proper time. This doctrine is closely related to the concept of statutes of limitations, except that statutes of limitations set specific time limits for legal actions, whereas under laches, generally there is no prescribed time that courts consider "proper." A defendant seeking the protection of laches must demonstrate that the plaintiff's inaction, misrepresentation, or silence prejudiced the defendant or induced the defendant to change positions for the worse.

The court applied the doctrine of laches in People v. Heirens, 648 N.E.2d 260 (Ill. 1st Dist. Ct. App. 1995). William Heirens pleaded guilty, in 1946, to three murders, for which he received three consecutive life terms in prison. Heirens sought court relief numerous times in the ensuing years. In 1989, 43 years after his conviction, Heirens filed his second postconviction petition seeking, among other things, relief from his prison sentence due to ineffective counsel and the denial of due process at the time of his arrest. The court found that all the witnesses and attorneys involved in Heirens's case had since died. Laches precluded Heirens from bringing his action because, according to the court, it would be "difficult to imagine a case where the facts are more remote and where the state might be more prejudiced by the passage of time."

Legal Estoppel

Legal estoppel consists of estoppel by deed and estoppel by record. Under the doctrine of estoppel by deed, a party to a property deed is precluded from asserting, as against another party to the deed, any right or title in derogation of the deed, or from denying the truth of any material fact asserted in the deed. For example, suppose a father conveys a plot of land to his son by deed. Unbeknownst to the son, the father actually does not own the plot of land at the time of the conveyance; the father acquires title to the property only after the conveyance. Technically, the son is not the legal owner of the property because his father did not own and did not have the right to transfer the real estate at the time of the conveyance. But under the doctrine of estoppel by deed, the court may "make good" the imperfection of the poorly timed conveyance by finding the son to be the rightful owner of the plot of land (Zayka v. Giambro, 32 Mass. App. Ct. 748, 594 N.E.2d 894 [1992]).

The doctrine of estoppel by record precludes a party from denying the issues adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction (collateral estoppel) or any matter spelled out in a judicial record (judicial estoppel).

Collateral estoppel, sometimes known as estoppel by judgment, prevents the re-argument of a factual or legal issue that has already been determined by a valid judgment in a prior case involving the same parties. For example, suppose Ms. Jones, who owns a business next to Mr. Smith's, sues Mr. Smith for damage to her property caused by the digging of a hole. Mr. Smith defends by arguing that the hole is on his land. After considering all the evidence, the court determines that Mr. Smith owns the land. Later that year, after a late night at work, Mr. Smith cuts across the back lot, falls into the hole, and is injured. He then sues Ms. Jones for negligent maintenance of her property. In this situation, the court will apply collateral estoppel, preventing Mr. Smith from re-litigating an issue that was already decided between the same parties in the prior proceeding.

The related doctrine of judicial estoppel binds a party to his or her judicial declarations, such as allegations contained in a lawsuit complaint or testimony given under oath at a previous trial. Judicial estoppel protects courts from litigants' using opposing theories in the attempt to prevail twice. For instance, a tenant trying to avoid liability to a property owner may not, in the tenant's bankruptcy case, successfully represent to a court that the property agreement is a lease and then later, when the property owner sues for nonpayment of rent, declare that the agreement is a mortgage rather than a lease (Port Authority v. Harstad, 531 N.W.2d 496 [Minn. Ct. App. 1995]).

Estoppel by record is frequently confused with the related doctrine of res judicata (a matter adjudged), which bars re-litigation of the same cause of action between the same parties once there has been a judgment. For example, if Mr. Chen sues Ms. Lopez for breach of contract and the court returns a decision, Ms. Lopez cannot later sue Mr. Chen for breach of the same contract. Ms. Lopez has the right to appeal the first decision, but she cannot bring a new lawsuit that raises the same claim.

Further Readings

Coale, David S. 1999. "A New Framework for Judicial Estoppel." Review of Litigation 18 (winter): 1–25.

Cooke, Elizabeth. 2000. The Modern Law of Estoppal. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lundquist, John W. 1997. "'They Knew What We Were Doing': The Evolution of the Criminal Estoppel Defense." William Mitchell Law Review 23 (winter): 843–77.

Shapiro, David L. 2001. Civil Procedure: Preclusion in Civil Actions. New York: Foundation Press.


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