The defense of laches bars a claim when, under the totality of the circumstances, the delay in prosecuting the claim would cause an injustice. In exceptional cases, the defense can be raised before a statute of limitations has run. For example, where a claimant waits until just before the statute of limitations is about to expire to file suit, the delay was unreasonable, and it causes prejudice to the opposing party. But lapse of time alone will not support a finding of laches.
In Prutch v. Town of Quartzsite, 231 Ariz. 431, 296 P.3d 94, (App. 2013), the plaintiff, Prutch filed suit contesting the election of a member to the town council in Quartzsite. Prutch waited until the last day before the statute of limitations expired to file the suit, and filed his claim in Maricopa County Court, which was not the proper venue.
After the case was transferred to La Paz County Superior Court, Quartzsite moved to have the case dismissed under the doctrine of laches, arguing Prutch unreasonably delayed the case by filing in an improper venue. It contended the delay prejudiced the town because it already printed sample ballots for the general election, and would be unable to print new ballots in time for early voting if the court found in Prutch’s favor. The court agreed with the town’s assertions, and granted the motion to dismiss under the doctrine of laches.
On appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals vacated the dismissal based on laches. The court noted laches is often raised in time-sensitive election cases, but that equity does not favor a finding of laches, and this defense will only be invoked in order to prevent injustice. In this case, the town had been prejudiced due to Prutch’s failure to file his suit at the proper venue, but there was no finding that Prutch had acted unreasonably in delaying the claim.
The trial court did not explicitly find that Prutch’s conduct was unreasonable. Rather, the court stated that the delay caused by filing the compliant at the improper venue was “unfortunate”. It appeared that Prutch made a legitimate mistake when filing his suit in the wrong venue, and under these circumstances, the court did not believe that his conduct was unreasonable.
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