Clean Hands Doctrine

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 What Is the Clean Hands Doctrine?

The Clean Hands Doctrine, also referred to as unclean hands, is a defense to a claim for equitable relief, typically an injunction or specific performance. According to this doctrine, a defendant can argue that the plaintiff has no right to obtain relief because he has acted unethically or in bad faith concerning the subject matter of the complaint.

Since this is an affirmative defense, the defendant must prove that the plaintiff is not acting in good faith or that their hands are unclean. The doctrine is sometimes expressed as those seeking equity must act in equity.

Additional Definitions of Unclean Hands

In the clean hands doctrine, a person who brings a lawsuit or motion and seeks equitable relief from a court must be innocent of wrongdoing or unfair conduct related to the subject matter of their claim. A defendant may assert that the plaintiff has “unclean hands” as an affirmative defense. Nevertheless, this defense may not be used to challenge the plaintiff’s conduct unrelated to the plaintiff’s claim.

As a result, the plaintiff’s unrelated corrupt actions and general immoral character would be irrelevant. For the defendant to be successful, the plaintiff must show that the defendant was misled or has done something wrong regarding the matter in question. The wrongful conduct may be of a legal or moral nature as long as it relates to the matter at hand.

A legal doctrine refers to the doctrine that a party asking for a judgment cannot have the court’s help if they have done anything unethical concerning the subject of the lawsuit.

In this situation, if a defendant can show the plaintiff had unclean hands, the plaintiff’s complaint will be dismissed, or judgment will be denied. It is a common affirmative defense pleaded by defendants and must be proved by the defendant.

Unclean hands, also known as the clean hands doctrine or dirty hands doctrine, is an equitable defense in which the defendant argues that the plaintiff is not entitled to receive an equitable remedy because he is acting unethically or acting in bad faith concerning the subject of the complaint, which is, with unclean hands. It is the defendant’s burden to prove the plaintiff is not acting in good faith. Often, the doctrine is stated as “those seeking equity must do equity” or “equity must come with clean hands.”

What Are Equitable Remedies?

Other than damages, equitable remedies are any other remedies that a court may award.
In the United States, the courts have the power of law and equity. When administering a trial or issuing a verdict, the court may use theories of fairness and justice in addition to the law.
Some equitable remedies include injunctions, implied in fact contracts, promissory estoppel, and a host of other fairness-based remedies.

What Is Needed to Establish Unclean Hands?

There is no specific definition of unclean hands. The person who does not deserve a remedy because they are not merely an innocent party injured by a guilty party will be deemed to have unclean hands. Whether this is sufficient will depend upon the specific court and jurisdiction, and a lawyer experienced in contract law can help you determine this.

Examples of Clean Hands

Example 1
After leaving a physician partnership, a doctor (plaintiff) sues the remaining doctors for money he is allegedly owed under the partnership contract. Due to the plaintiff’s attempts to take patients from the partnership’s practice, the defense raises the unclean hands defense. In addition, he told incriminating lies about the remaining doctors to get patients to leave the partnership and come to him instead.

The doctor could not sue on equitable grounds for the money since he has unclean hands.

Example 2
Sellers of products may use the unclean hands affirmative defense if they fraudulently induce a customer to sign a contract and then sue the customer to recover payment for those products based on the contract since the plaintiff in fraudulently inducing the customer to sign the contract lost his right to sue under the clean hands doctrine.

Generally, suppose the defendant can show that the plaintiff has acted wrongly regarding the claim or contract at hand. In that case, an equity court is unlikely to decide unfairness or injustice in favor of the plaintiff.

Example 3
In 2000, Company 1 obtained confidential client information from Company 2. It wasn’t by legitimate means but by illegal or immoral means. In 2006, Company 2 stole confidential client information from Company 1 six years later. As a result, Company 1 sues Company 2 to get the confidential client information back and enforce an injunction to prevent further thefts. Company 1 will not succeed since it sued Company 2 with “unclean hands.”

As a result of Company 1 acting immorally or illegally, it has unclean hands. It cannot be helped by the court if it is involved in immoral or illegal acts committed against it by another.
The complaint must seek an equitable remedy to claim unclean hands as an affirmative defense.

Further Examples of the Clean Hand Doctrine

Sellers may sue customers for payments on contracts claiming they fraudulently induced them to sign the contract. A court of equity will not rule on fairness and justice issues if the person seeking such justice has acted wrongly regarding the issue at hand.

For instance, when a brokerage firm claimed that a competitor had stolen its confidential client information, the court found that the firm had not come to court with “clean hands” since it had demonstrated the same disregard for the competitor’s information when it had snared the same broker six years earlier.

Hank sues Grace for breach of contract due to her failure to pay the full amount for the construction of an addition to her house. Hank had shown Grace fake estimates from subcontractors to justify his original bid.

Family Law Application

Although this doctrine is most commonly discussed in contract law, it can also be applied to family law. Here are a few examples of how the doctrine is used in family law.

Example 1
A parent kidnaps their child and then asks for custody. Unless the child is in danger in the other parent’s custody, this parent will most likely not be granted custody.

Example 2
During a marriage or separation, one spouse conceals assets or misappropriates marital property. The other spouse discovers the misappropriation. As a result of their unfair conduct, the first spouse is likely to receive less than their fair share when the property is divided at divorce.

Can I Bring Suit for a Violation of the Clean Hands Doctrine?

The clean hands doctrine is generally a defense, but a plaintiff seeking an equitable remedy can invoke it to prevent the defendant from raising another equitable defense. Due to its limited application, the doctrine does not apply to cases seeking damages.

However, in many situations, a person who has acted with unclean hands will have acted in bad faith, which will violate the good faith and fair dealing condition implied in contracts. In such a situation, the other party may be able to sue for breach of contract based on a violation of good faith and recover damages.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Understanding the law regarding contracts and contractual relations can be very confusing. An experienced lawyer can help you determine your rights and obligations under a contract. Lawyers can explain your possible defenses, including unclean hands, if someone has brought a claim against you. They can also represent you in court if necessary.

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