Putnam's Handy Law Book for the Layman

Equitable Remedies. - Elsewhere we have told how courts of law differ from courts of equity. In some states no separate courts exist, and wherever legal proceedings are established by a code or system of statute law, the form of complaint addressed to a court is quite the same in an equity case as in any other. But in states where code practice has not been established, the mode of setting forth one's grievance or wrong is by a bill or petition, ending with a prayer for relief. We will now briefly state some of the things for which relief in equity may be sought.

One of the most common things is to compel persons who refuse to perform their contracts to execute them. Suppose one has agreed in writing properly signed to sell his farm to another, but is unwilling to give him a deed. It may be that he can get more for his farm, or he has made the discovery since selling it that it is worth much more, is underlaid with coal or oil, or that a railway is [119]soon to be built near it that will enhance its value. If he went to a law court, all that it could do would be to compel the seller to give the purchaser such damages as he could prove he had sustained from the seller's failure to execute his agreement. But a court of equity can go further and compel the seller to give the purchaser a proper deed, the kind of deed mentioned in the agreement; or, if none was specified, the kind of deed usually given in such cases.

This remedy cannot be always sought whenever the seller fails to execute his contracts. The important limitation is, when the law has an adequate remedy, and the injured person has no need of resorting to a court of equity. All the ordinary agricultural and manufactured products fall within this class, cotton, cattle, lumber, fruits, stock in trade and the like. But if a chattel has a sentimental value to the purchaser, a court of equity will decree that it must be delivered to him, because in such a case the damages would obviously be inadequate. The same rule applies to all articles of a unique or rare value that cannot be duplicated; also to patented or copyrighted things that cannot be procured in the open market.

Suppose one has purchased the stock of a bank or railroad company, which the seller refuses to deliver, has the buyer a legal remedy for damages, or an equitable remedy to compel the seller to deliver the stock, or has he the choice of remedies? The courts have divided on this question. The better rule is, if the stock can be readily bought in the open market, the buyer has only a law remedy to recover damages from the seller's failure to execute his contract; if the stock cannot be thus purchased, a money damage is not an adequate remedy, the [120]purchaser wants the stock and he can, through a court of equity, compel the seller to deliver it to him. As government bonds can always be bought in the open market, a court of equity will not decree the specific execution of a contract for the delivery of the actual bonds purchased.

If A has agreed to erect a building for B on his land and fails to do it, money damages are usually an adequate remedy, but if B cannot find any one else to do the work as well, or in as satisfactory manner, then a court of equity would compel A to fulfil his agreement. Likewise if a landlord has agreed to repair his tenant's premises and neglects, the legal remedy is usually more satisfactory than a specific execution of the agreement, because work done under compulsion is not likely to be as well done as that done voluntarily.

A contract to render personal services will not be enforced against a person who has agreed to perform them, for several reasons, one is that another person can be employed, another is that the thirteenth amendment to the federal constitution, forbidding involuntary servitude, cuts off the equitable remedy in such cases; of course the legal remedy for damages is still effective. A contract to give a mortgage to secure a loan of money may be enforced by the creditor, but a contract to lend money cannot be enforced by either party, because there is usually an open market for the lending and borrowing of money. Likewise a contract to form a partnership cannot be enforced, for, if it were, the unwilling partner could dissolve it and thus nullify the action of the court.

Where one sells out his business, whether commercial or professional, and agrees not to compete with the buyer, equity will compel the seller to [121]observe his contract unless it was illegal or an unreasonable restraint on trade. This limitation is important. Thus A, a dentist in Philadelphia, agreed with B, another dentist, not to practice in the city for ten years a certain method of extracting teeth. A continued to practice as before and B applied to a court of equity to enjoin him. He failed for the reason that no one ought to have a monopoly, so the court said, in any means or method for relieving human suffering, like the process in dispute. If an employee agrees not to divulge the trade secrets of his employer, equity will enforce the agreement, for damages given in a law court would be wholly inadequate.

Another class of cases must be mentioned relating to injuries to land. By the common law the only relief a landowner had against one who injured it in any way was an action of waste to recover money damages. A court of equity has power to issue a command to the person who threatens or attempts to commit injury ordering and directing him to desist from his purpose. This has been often used by the owners of land against their tenants who attempted to do things that would materially injure the property. This remedy is now often used to secure the owner and occupier of land in its proper use against those who attempt to commit a nuisance. While the occupier could recover damages if he sought the aid of a law court, equity will order the wrongdoer to abate the nuisance. Such a remedy is much more effective than the legal one, because damages that may be recovered relate only to a past offense, while the equitable one prevents it from happening or from its continuance.

Promises not to do some particular act on a piece of land are often made in deeds conveying them; [122]they are called covenants. Equity will usually enforce these covenants, and will compel the wrongdoer to undo what he has done provided that relief is sought promptly. Thus if a purchaser agrees not to build nearer the street than a stated line, he can be enjoined from disregarding it. A purchaser therefore who built two houses three feet beyond the agreed line was compelled to remove them.

The remedy in such a case is an injunction. It may be temporary or permanent. Quite often when one applies for an injunction, if the injury threatened is immediate, the court will immediately enjoin the party from proceeding and fix a time for a future hearing to decide whether the injunction shall be dissolved or made permanent. The time fixed for such a hearing is within the discretion of the court, and depends on the nature of the case. Usually the time is quite short, enough to enable the parties to collect the evidence relating to the controversy. The hearing is conducted very much like any other trial, witnesses appear, all the evidence is given, and is reviewed by contending counsel, after which the judge announces his decision. Some of the more noteworthy injunctions of recent days have been rendered against labor unions or their members who, having struck for higher wages, or other ends, have sought to picket the works of their employers and thus prevent them from employing other workers to take the places of the strikers. The unions contend that this is an improper use of the judicial power, whether it is or not no one will deny that it has been long exercised.

In the early days of administering the patent law injunctions were granted against infringers. Judges soon grew more cautious when they learned that patents were sometimes erroneously granted, and [123]that, on acquiring a fuller knowledge of the controversy, there had been no infringement. The modern practice therefore is, unless the proof is very clear, to require a party who applies for an injunction to try his case first and establish his patent and then, if it has been infringed, an injunction will be issued.


Do It Yourself Legal Forms
Law for the Laymen - Equitable Remedies
Page Updated 6:07 PM Thursday 6/13/2013