Vail law: Here’s a look inside ‘declaratory relief’ |

Vail law: Here’s a look inside ‘declaratory relief’

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO Colorado

Jerry Maguire’s famous declamation notwithstanding, law isn’t always about “showing the money.” In fact, in civil actions, lawsuits are, at times, not about money at all. Although, more commonly, lawsuits seek money damages for some alleged breach or wrong, there are times when legal actions are simply about understanding or clarifying rights, or “declaratory relief.”

In common parlance, the word “declare” means “to clear; to free from obscurity; to make plain.” It also means “to make known; to tell explicitly; to state or announce openly, formally or in definite terms.” The legal definition of the word derives from its usual, common-sense application; it means “to utter or announce clearly some opinion or resolution.” At the end of the day, “to declare” means “to formally announce; to sort out and resolve.”

As I said before, not all lawsuits are about money or seek money damages. Sometimes, the disputants simply want to sort things out, to know who has what obligation to whom or to clarify what the nature of the interests in a thing in dispute may be. When confusion over legal interests arise, who you gonna call to sort them out? Not Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, and their cadre of feckless spook-fighters. You gonna call the court.

Courts exist to allow disputes to be fought out sans fisticuffs or other unfair tactics or devices. The very purpose of the courts is to resolve disputes without retreat to, or reliance upon, self-help remedies or resolutions. Courts exist to sort things out in a peaceful and consistent manner, to not only level the playing field but also to ensure that we all play by the same agreed-upon rules.

Accordingly, when a dispute arises – whether a over a sum of money, breaches of a contract or other obligation, a personal injury or other wrongs, including rights or interests which may be in dispute – the court is society’s arbiter, invested with the charge to make sense out of the mayhem of the dispute and, in the final analysis, to judge.

After all, when things go sufficiently awry that the parties cannot reach a reasonable resolution, some neutral party – beholden to and invested in neither – ultimately has to make sense of the chaos and render judgment. This is what a court does. It is intended to be the discovery of truth and is given society’s imprimatur to enforce the resolution it conceives.

“Declaratory relief,” then, seeks as its remedy, not money, but a binding adjudication of the rights and status of litigants. Such judgment is conclusive – that is, final – in a subsequent action between the parties as to the matters declared and as to any issues actually litigated and determined.

A quick example may be helpful. Say a seller is selling her residence. She takes offers from two buyers and, inexplicably, accepts them both. After accepting them both and executing both offers for sale, she returns the signed contracts to the two buyers. Buyer A wires his earnest money deposit to the title company and prepares to close. Similarly, Buyer B wires his earnest money deposit to the title company and prepares to close.

Just for fun, let’s say that both transactions are being managed by the same title company. At some point in the festivities, a clever title agent notices that Buyer A and Buyer B have, ostensibly, purchased the same property from the same seller. Oops!

The problem here, among obvious others, is that the law recognizes that all real estate is unique and therefore, literally, irreplaceable. Accordingly, even if the seller had another theoretically identical piece of property in her back pocket, she could not substitute it for the property either Buyer A or Buyer B intended to buy.

The parties have a conundrum on their hands. Both A and B want the property and both claim that they have a valid and enforceable contract to the property which compels the seller to sell them, and only them, the property. What’s a girl to do?

This is precisely the kind of problem which may be susceptible to a declaration by the court. One way or another someone is going to get the property and someone is not. If the parties cannot sort it out on their own, they can bring the matter to court seeking declaratory relief which, in essence says, “Hey, Judge, you sort out this mess.”

Each party will be able to support its positions, citing facts and law to the court which encourage the court to rule in their favor and, at the end of the day, the court will make a determination to which all parties will be bound. A or B will likely get the property, the other will likely get money damages to compensate him for his trouble. The seller will likely get a world of hurt whichever way it goes.

Still, the court will declare the rights and interests. And in this way, peace and harmony will prevail throughout the land. Or something like it, anyway.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a former adjunct professor of law and may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at

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