Even where there is no failure to comply with time limits, sometimes carriers assert the Doctrine of Laches in an attempt to defeat a claim or grievance, although this happens very rarely. While there have been a few decisions that support the Doctrine of Laches in railroad disputes, the majority of the decisions find the Doctrine of Laches is not applicable in railroad disputes.
The Doctrine of Laches is an equitable doctrine in the courts that can foreclose a request for injunctive relief the same way statutes of limitations foreclosed requests on legal damages. Its elements are: (1) undue delay; (2) unexplained delay; and, (3) injustice to the other party.
While in the courts laches is similar to statutes of limitations, there is a substantial difference between them. Statutes of limitations are concerned with the fact of delay in bringing an action within a specific time period. Laches is concerned with the effect of delay. The mere lapse of time does not constitute laches. Laches demands more than delay. It requires a lack of diligence.
Laches has two basic elements: (1) inexcusable delay in commencement of action; and, (2) prejudice or injury to the respondent as the result of the inexcusable delay.
A party invoking laches must show a delay by the opposing party in asserting a right or claim, that the delay was not excusable, and that there was undue prejudice to the party against whom the claim is asserted. For one to successfully assert the defense of laches, it must be shown that there was a passage of time combined with some prejudice to the party asserting the defense of laches, because laches is an equitable doctrine.
The National Railroad Adjustment Board has on numerous occasions held that laches is a principle of equity, and the Board does not have equitable powers.
For example, an Award of the NRAB states:
"The Railway Labor Act contains no provisions limiting the time within which claims may be filed by employees. Nor does the parties' agreement applicable to the instant case contain any such statute of limitation. In the absence of such formal prescriptions, should this Board be persuaded by the facts of this case to create one?
We think not. Under the circumstances as above set forth, such action by us here would amount to our writing a time limit rule for the parties. And this we are not empowered to do. Accordingly, we found that a sustaining award is in order."
In First Division Award 19145, Referee John P. Sembower held:
"Some four years elapsed between the final exchange of correspondence between the parties on the property and the filing of claimant's ex parte submission here, but as we noted under similar circumstances in Award 16346, Referee Carroll R. Daugherty, 'the Railway Labor Act contains no provision limiting the time within which claims may be filed by employees. Nor does the parties' agreement applicable to the instant case contain any such statute of limitation,' so we must consider the claim, despite Carriers' objection that laches has run."
In Award 17930, Referee Thomas C. Begley of the First Division held:
"The Board further finds that the effective agreement does not contain a clause limiting the time for the filing of time claims.
Therefore, these claims presented in the letter of July 11, 1947, will be allowed."
In Award 8362, Referee Robert F. Simmons of the First Division held:
"The Carrier next states that it denied this claim on May 12, 1937, and that it was not again presented until barred by inaction. It is not shown that there is any time limitation fixed by contract on the presentation of these matters; the Railway Labor Act fixes none applicable here. The Carrier does not assert that it has been prejudiced by the failure to prosecute the claim; the facts of the claim are agreed to jointly; the only factual question undetermined is the above discussed of what holidays are within the understanding of the parties, and as to that the Carrier makes no contention that its records are not available. Under these circumstances we are unwilling to invoke laches or estoppel against the claim of the employee."
In Award 12126, Referee Clifford W. Potter of the First Division held:
"The Employees here did not protest individually when the work in question was performed, but their duly authorized representatives had the right to raise a question later, when they learned of the facts and circumstances. There is no limit for the presentation of claims growing out of alleged contract violations in the Act."
In Award No. 14 of Public Law Board No. 382, Referee N.H. Zumas held:
"Finally, with respect to Carrier's defense of'laches' the Board finds it is without merit. The doctrine of 'laches' has its genesis in the courts of equity and evolved as one of the many remedies created by the equity chancellors as a means of rectifying the 'action at law' deficiencies. It was and is a unique and seldom applied concept utilized only in extraordinary circumstances."