Our legal system is based on the common law passed down to us from merry ol’ England. In addition to express rules (statutes) that one can research in the Idaho Code and regulations enacted by state agencies such as the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality found in the Idaho Administrative Code, the law of the land includes actual legal disputes that make their way up to the Idaho Supreme Court for final resolution. Those cases either interpret and apply existing statutes and regulations to the parties’ facts, or they may apply equitable doctrines that have been handed down through the years in the search for justice.
One such equitable doctrine is the “clean hands” doctrine. In Idaho, the Idaho Supreme Court has applied the clean hands doctrine several times. In Sword v. Sweet, 140 Idaho 242, 251 (2004), the Court summarized the doctrine as follows:
The doctrine of “unclean hands” is based on the maxim that “he who comes into equity must come with clean hands.” It allows a court to deny equitable relief to a litigant on the ground that his or her conduct has been “inequitable, unfair and dishonest, or fraudulent and deceitful as to the controversy at issue.” In determining if this doctrine applies, a court has discretion to evaluate the relative conduct of both parties and to determine whether the conduct of the party seeking an equitable remedy should, in the light of all the circumstances, preclude such relief.
In that case, the Idaho Supreme Court upheld both the lower courts’ decisions in favor of the estate of Joyce Sweet. It rejected her former husband’s attempts to argue that she was bound by an unwritten “settlement agreement” in an earlier divorce proceeding, noting, “Larry attempted to walk a fine line between performance and non-performance in which he sought to enjoy the benefits of the alleged agreement (preventing Joyce from initiating further action against him) while avoiding the ultimate transfer of control of roughly half of ‘his’ wealth to his estranged spouse.” Id.
In Carl Curtis, dba Eastgate Phase II Homeowners’ Association v. Martin Becker and Theresa Becker, 130 Idaho 378 (Idaho App. 1997), the Idaho Court of Appeals rejected Curtis’ attempt to collect from the Beckers for improvements he made to two lots they owned in a subdivision he was developing because he did so knowing that he did not have their permission to do so.
“It is clear that Curtis made the improvements to Lots 14 and 15 knowing that he had not obtained the proper approval from the Beckers.” Curtis’ actions fall within the essence of “conduct (that) has been inequitable, unfair and dishonest, or fraudulent and deceitful as to the controversy in issue.” Id. at 384.
In Union Central Life Insurance Company v. Wilse A. Nielson, 62 Idaho 483 (Idaho 1941), the Idaho Supreme Court cited the unclean hands doctrine in rejecting Nielson’s attempt to argue the validity of a mortgage that he had previously acknowledged in negotiating an extension to it.
“(Nielson) now seeks in various ways to defeat a recovery upon the identical mortgage, the validity of which he acknowledged for the purpose of obtaining an extension, and but for which, respondent would, of course, have proceeded to foreclose. In these circumstances, it would be contrary to good conscience and most inequitable to permit appellant to defeat a recovery – ‘he who comes into equity must come with clean hands.’” Id. at 496.
The bottom line? Those seeking justice must do justice.
Molly O’Leary represents business and telecommunications clients throughout Idaho, and is a managing member of Richardson & O’Leary, PLLC, in Boise (richardsonandoleary.com). In addition, O’Leary serves as president of the Idaho State Bar Board of Commissioners, and on the statewide advisory council for the Idaho Small Business Development Center. You can follow her on Twitter: @BizCounselor.