Time-Bars: RICO-Criminal and Civil-Federal and State

By Blakey, G. Robert | Notre Dame Law Review, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Time-Bars: RICO-Criminal and Civil-Federal and State


Blakey, G. Robert, Notre Dame Law Review


2. Laches

Laches is a doctrine in equity that bars a plaintiff's claim if the plaintiff's tardiness unjustly prejudices the defendant. A party raising the, laches defense must prove "(1) lack of diligence by the party against whom the defense is asserted, and (2) prejudice to the party asserting the defense." (489)

Historically, in line with the rule of nullum tempus occurit regi, the doctrine of laches was not applicable to the United States unless otherwise directed by Congress. The Court first discussed the rationale behind adopting this rule in United States v. Thompson. (490) In that case, the government sued the defendant--the superintendent of Indian affairs in Minnesota--for converting over $10,000 of federal money into personal profit. The government did not file the case within the six-year statute of limitations period established by the Minnesota state statute. (491) While the lower court barred the suit in favor of the defendant, the Court was "at a loss to imagine the reasoning by which the result announced was reached." (492) The Court went on to explain that as "[t]he king was held never to be included" in statutes of limitation or laches, so too, does the national governement fall outside its scope. (493) First, the government serves to protect the public interest; thus, "the public should not suffer by negligence of his servants." (494) Additionally, if the United States was subject to the varied statutes of limitations of each state, "[t]he government of the Union would in this respect be at the mercy of the States." (495) As such, the Court held that the national government, unless otherwise specified by Congress, falls outside the scope of statutes of limitation or laches. (496)

Nevertheless, the Court allowed for an exception to the general rule that the government is immune from the doctrine of laches or statutes of limitation. In United States v. Beebe, (497) the Court reaffirmed its earlier stance on the rule, (498) but weakened its force by "justly and wisely" applying laches against the United States. (499) In Beebe, the government filed suit on behalf of private citizens that failed to bring suit themselves, to set aside an allegedly fraudulently obtained patent. (500) The government's role in the case was not to protect a public right or interest, but a private right between two citizens. (501) In such circumstances, courts can and should subject the government to equitable doctrines, including laches. Accordingly,

   [W] hen the government is a mere formal complainant in a suit, not
   for the purpose of asserting any public right or protecting any
   public interest, rifle, or property, but merely to form a conduit
   through which one private person can conduct litigation against
   another private person, a court of equity will not be restrained
   from administering the equities existing between the real parties
   by any exemption of the [g]overnment designed for the protection of
   the rights of the United States alone. (502)

The policy behind immunizing the government from a laches or a statute of limitations defense is based upon the courts' protection of a public right in the hand of the government. If the government seeks to protect a private right, the public would not suffer from the negligence of governmental officers; thus, it removes the rationale and the rule for the doctrine exempting the sovereign from the defense of laches or statutes of limitation. (503)

Over one hundred years later, the Court still applies the same principle with relation to the statute of limitation and laches. In United States v. Sulin, (504) the Court reaffirmed its position that neither a statute of limitations nor a laches defense applies against the government when acting in its sovereign capacity. There, the government, through the Federal Housing Administrator, became the assignee of a claim against the administratrix of J.F. Andrew's estate. …

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