Partner Ryan Baker was quoted in a January 30th article in the San Diego Union Tribune about Razuki v. Malan, a San Diego Superior Court complex civil case arising from a failed real estate partnership. The equitable doctrine of unclean hands has become a central issue after the plaintiff engaged others, with his civil litigation pending, to intimidate and/or murder the defendant, plaintiff’s former business partner. The defendant has argued the plaintiff should not be permitted to recover because the plaintiff has unclean hands, having engaged in criminal conduct against the defendant.
Baker explained to Union Tribune reporter Alex Riggins that defendants will often use the unclean hands doctrine as an affirmative defense when first responding to a lawsuit, but it’s not often that the unclean hands doctrine is litigated as a central issue. Explaining the unclean hands doctrine, Baker said, “[y]ou’re coming and asking the court to punish (the defendant), but you’ve also done wrong here,” Baker said. “You’re not entitled to any recovery because you also engaged in misconduct as related to the claim.” “Courts are ultimately trying to be fair.”
Baker also said that unclean hands typically only applies to conduct that directly relates to the claims and it is therefore usually based on conduct that occurred prior to the filing of the litigation in which it is argued. He identified the example of an employee who sues his employer for wrongful termination but had lied on his resume to get the job. A court might find the employee had unclean hands and bar any recovery. With regard to the Razuki case, Baker warned that although unclean hands is an equitable “doctrine based on fairness,” allowing the defendant to cite conduct subsequent to the filing of a lawsuit would create a slippery slope for courts and litigants.
Although plaintiff Razuki certainly has unclean hands in the sense that he committed a crime, the question is whether his criminal act, which took place after he filed his civil claims, deprives him of his rights in the civil action. It’s an interesting question that will probably ultimately be considered by the appellate courts.
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