The equitable defense of laches generally cannot be used against the sovereign. This broad proposition, adopted from English Courts of Equity, cements itself in United States federal case law. It is a longstanding principle that the federal government protects the public good and must be exempt from the defenses that could be brought up in a private suit. Administrative agencies bear a similar role, and exemption, when litigating as the United States on behalf of the public.
However, courts do not affirmatively restrict the use of laches against administrative agencies who may be acting on behalf of a private litigant. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission represents one of the many administrative agencies who defend both the collective public worker and private litigants when initiating lawsuits under Title VII. Depending on the facts, a court may conclude that the EEOC assumes the role of the private litigant. Under this scenario, courts have found laches against the sovereign.
District courts rely on minimal appellate authority when making the decision to grant laches against the EEOC; no threshold rule exists. This Note analyzes whether an employer may raise the laches defense as a matter of law and overcome the presumption that laches cannot be used against the federal government, specifically when the EEOC pursues back pay as a remedy in Title VII suits. In doing so, this Note reviews how courts determine the availability of laches, which scenarios give cause for defendants to assert laches against the EEOC, and how litigation under similarly drafted statutes may provide assistance for the EEOC when pursuing back pay.
Ruth Ann Mueller,
Is a Delayed Result a Just Result? The Use of Laches as an Equitable Defense to Remedial Back Pay Under the EEOC's Sovereignty,
Cath. U. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.edu/lawreview/vol67/iss4/11