As noted in a previous article, I occasionally have clients who are looking for a way to get out of their contractual obligations. I mentioned five broad methods for getting out of contract: 1) exit provisions in the contract; 2) validity of the contract; 3) contract construction; 4) excuse for non-performance; and 5) breach. If your contract dispute cannot be resolved and proceeds to litigation, irrespective of whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant, the opposing party may attempt to stop you from claiming a right under the contract. They may in fact attempt to claim that your argument under one of the five methods above is not relevant, even if true. One way they can argue this is through equitable estoppel.
What is Equitable Estoppel?
Very generally, estoppel can prevent a claimant from asserting a legal claim against someone else if the claim contradicts what that person has said or done previously. Equitable estoppel is generally used as a defense in contract actions and prevents one party from using false language or conduct (a misrepresentation) to induce another party to act in a certain way that ends up hurting that person. Essentially, equitable estoppel prevents gaining an unfair advantage through dishonest conduct. It is very important to note that equitable estoppel is an affirmative defense to a legal claim by another party. This means that the party raising the issue of equitable estoppel will bear the burden of showing facts and arguments that fulfill the elements of equitable estoppel in that particular jurisdiction. This and other complexities of contract litigation are why it is crucial to retain a Minnesota contract lawyer as soon as possible.
Equitable Estoppel in Minnesota
In Minnesota, the prevailing law requires that a party claiming the affirmative defense of equitable estoppel must prove the following elements: 1) there must be conduct, acts, language, or silence amounting to a representation or a concealment of material facts; 2) these facts must be known to the party estopped (i.e. the party accused of unfair conduct) at the time of the conduct, or at least the circumstances must be such that knowledge of them is necessarily imputed to him; 3) the truth concerning these facts must be unknown to the other party claiming the benefit of the estoppel, at the time when such conduct was done, and at the time when it was acted upon by him; 4) the conduct must be done with the intention, or at least with the expectation, that it will be acted upon by the other party, or under such circumstances that it is both natural and probable that it will be so acted upon; 5) the conduct must be relied upon by the other party, and in reliance he must be led to act upon it; and 6) he must in fact act upon it in such a manner as to change his position for the worse – in other words, he must suffer a loss if he were compelled to surrender or forego or alter what he has done by reason of the first party being permitted to repudiate his conduct and to assert rights inconsistent with it. Lunning v. Land O’Lakes, 303 N.W.2d 452, 457 (Minn. 1980). Different jurisdictions may vary in the elements they require to show that equitable estoppel is warranted.
It is also vital for clients and attorneys to understand that estoppel depends heavily on the unique details of each case and therefore is ordinarily a fact question for a jury to decide. This means that if one party claims equitable estoppel, the other party usually may not be able to resolve the lawsuit by asking the judge for summary judgment in their favor.
Summary judgment is a form of asking the judge to resolve the case at the beginning of the litigation. Summary judgment may be granted by a judge, prior to trial, when the judge can determine that there are no genuine issues of material fact and one party deserves to prevail without proceeding to the jury. Summary judgment is usually not appropriate in cases where one party is claiming the benefit of equitable estoppel because as explained above, it depends heavily on questions of fact such as: what unfair acts or misrepresentation allegedly happened; whether either party had knowledge of the truth regarding the misrepresentation; whether the party accused of acting unfairly meant for the misrepresentation to be relied upon; whether the party claiming equitable estoppel actually relied on the conduct; et cetera.
The reality that equitable estoppel claims are generally not resolved through summary judgments may or may not be beneficial to your particular case. It is crucial that you have a knowledgeable contract litigation attorney who can analyze the legal issues and determine whether there are any valid issues of equitable estoppel in your case.
Issues of claiming any affirmative defense in contract litigation, especially equitable estoppel, are complicated. Whether you wish to use equitable estoppel as a defense, or you suspect that the other party may wish to assert the defense against you, there are important legal considerations to be made and consequences to be assessed. These issues should be analyzed by a skilled Minnesota contract litigation attorney who will be able to conduct proper legal analysis based on the particular facts of your case. Sherayzen Law Office can help you analyze your case, evaluate your options for moving forward, and can provide specialized advise on how to proceed with your contract litigation.