Robbins: Understanding injunctive and declaratory relief
Despite the legal strong arms of the world, it isn’t always about the money.
In fact, setting criminal law — which is a horse of an entirely different color — aside, many times civil actions aren’t about money at all, or maybe only tangentially so. Often, what a dispute centers on, and what the lawsuit is all about, is simply rights and interests. And there is … um … this thing called “justice.” Let’s take a brief stop there.
The root word here is “just.”
Justice is the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments, particularly within the context of societal norms.
Dwell on that a moment if you will. What is “just” is what the culture has determined is fair, proper or correct.
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Sometimes, what is proper or correct is to restore one to his or her prior standing or position. Where one driver nosedives into another driver’s car, the fair thing is for the party at fault to restore the faultless driver to where s/he stood before the accident, which may include payment for his or her property damage, medical expenses, loss of income, pain and suffering, etc.
But, what if there are not quite so palpable economic losses? What if, say, there is a disagreement over boundary between two properties? Or there are different takes on what a condominium association declaration says? Or a million other things that are not so easily translated into greenbacks?
One more short historical discourse, then we’ll zero in.
What might surprise you — likely it’s something you’ve not spent too many brain cells cogitating over — is that the origin of law … civil law (that is, non-criminal law) anyway, arose to protect property. When there was no property, which was the early state of man/woman in their natural state, everything belonged to everyone … or to no one. What was there to fight about? But once we started demising, “This is mine and that is yours and keep your mitts off my stuff,” law sprouted like a weed.
Law arose to keep the peace and to set things right. Law blossomed to do justice.
As noted at the prow of the column, not everything is about the dough. Lots of legal matters spin about the fulcrum of rights. In divorce, for instance, not only is the focus upon splitting up the financial cache, but it is also concerned about issues of parenting and other key matters and interests that have little if anything do with money.
One last little detour: “Relief” is what you are asking for the court to award. If you are asking for money damages, money is the “relief” that you are seeking. Where what you are seeking from the court is for the court to declare what the disputant’s respective rights are regarding a particular matter, the relief that you are seeking is “declaratory relief.”
Declaratory relief may be defined as a judge’s determination of the parties’ rights under a contract or a statute requested by a party for direction and for clarification. “Judge, what does this mean?” In simple terms, “declaratory relief” is where one asks the court to “declare” what the rights or interests of the parties are.
An example here may help. Say there is a dispute over the permitted improvements which can be made to a condominium under the declaration and other governance instruments of the condominium association. The condo owner reads the instruments one way and the owners’ association reads it another. What either party might do is take the matter to the court and say, “Hey, you decide. Which one of us is right?”
What is at stake here is not directly money, but rather a green light (or red or yellow light) as to if and how the owner may proceed with his or her proposed renovations. The court will listen to the arguments and then ponder, cogitate and consider. The court will weigh the facts and weigh the law, balance all key factors, and toss both up on the scales of justice. Ultimately, the court will render its decision. And when it does, the court will make its declaration which will bind the parties.
What, then, is injunctive relief?
Injunctive relief is a remedy which restrains a party from doing certain acts or requires a party to act in a certain way. One party asks the court to order the other party to do something or to refrain from doing something.
Let’s dive into another quick example.
Say my neighbor intends to drill for oil in our residential neighborhood. Say, too, I think that’s sort of a bad idea. If we can’t resolve this on our own, I may hie off to court and plead to the judge, “Whoa, there! I need the court to please order my neighbor to put away his auger before irreparable harm is done to me, my property, and, while we’re at it, the environment!” If the judge agrees, s/he will issue an injunction and my neighbor will be ordered to holster his drill.
Not just money makes the world go round. Sometimes, what you need, instead, is the application of a little common sense which, when you bore down to the nut of it, is what injunctive and declaratory relief are really all about.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Caplan & Earnest, LLC. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions; real estate and development; family law, custody, and divorce; and civil litigation. Mr. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address: Rrobbins@CELaw.com. His novels, “How to Raise a Shark (an apocryphal tale)” and “The Stone Minder’s Daughter,” are currently available at Amazon.com.