Breach of Contract Defenses: Unclean Hands

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What is the Unclean Hands doctrine?

The unclean hands doctrine is an equitable defense that allows a defendant to defeat the plaintiff’s claim against them. 
 
Under the unclean hands defense, the defendant would argue that the plaintiff is not entitled to relief because they have committed some sort of wrongdoing or are themselves liable for an offense. In other words, the plaintiff cannot obtain a remedy because their hands are “unclean”. The doctrine is also known as the “clean hands doctrine” or the “dirty hands doctrine”.
 
The unclean hands defense is only available in claims involving equitable forms of relief. These are forms of relief that involve the court ordering the defendant to perform some sort of action. Some examples of equitable remedies are injunctions and specific performance. The unclean hands argument is not available in cases resulting in legal damages (i.e., not available in claims for monetary awards).
 
Also, unclean hands is a form of “affirmative defense”. This means that the defendant alleges that the plaintiff has done something which disqualifies them from obtaining relief. Therefore, the defendant has the burden of both raising the defense in court and proving it.

In what types of contract claims may the unclean hands defense be raised?

The unclean hands defense may only be raised in claims of equity. In any type of contract claim, the equitable forms of relief include:
 
Thus, in a contracts claim, the plaintiff might request the court to provide the above forms of equitable relief- specific performance, rescission or reformation. In response, the defendant would raise the unclean hands defense. They would then argue that the plaintiff is not entitled to specific performance, etc., because they have committed some type of wrongdoing. 
 
Unclean hands may also be raised by the plaintiff. They may argue that the defendant is not entitled to some form of defense because they too have unclean hands. Thus, the doctrine is available for both plaintiff and defendant in a contracts claim. 

What is required to prove unclean hands?

The requirements for unclean hands tend to be very broad and will vary from state to state. In general, it is not required that the plaintiff commit the same exact wrongdoing as the defendant. They may be found to have unclean hands even if they commit an offense that is unrelated to the defendant’s violations. 
 
For example, the plaintiff may be accusing the defendant of breach of contract. However, if the plaintiff acted in bad faith (such as lying) when formulating the contract, the defendant would then be able to raise the unclean hands defense.  Some other examples of conduct which might constitute unclean hands are:
 
Finally, unclean hands has nothing to do with the overall moral character of the person it is raised against. If a person is perceived as being a “bad person”, it is not enough to justify an unclean hands argument. The plaintiff’s wrongdoing must still be sufficiently related to the contract in order to have unclean hands. 
 
In general an action may be grounds for unclean hands if it violates “good faith or conscience”, which are common equitable standards for evaluating conduct. 

Do I need a lawyer for an unclean hands defense?

The unclean hands defense is only applicable in specific situations. Also, it can be a complicated defense since both the plaintiff and the defendant are entitled to raise it. Therefore if you are involved in a contract dispute, working with a contracts attorney will be of great assistance for your claim. They will be able to determine if the unclean hands defense is available for your situation. An experienced contracts lawyer will also be able to examine whether other defenses are available to you. 

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Last Modified: 06-20-2012 02:18 PM PDT

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