Equitable Relief is asking the Court to Do Something that Monetary Damages Can’t Compensate For
Interviewer: What are some examples of equitable relief?
Robert Cummings: So, basically, legal relief is, for the most part, money damages. “The defendant has harmed me, and I can put a reasonable dollar amount on that of two thousand dollars.” On the other hand, equitable relief is asking the court to do something that money damages cannot compensate for. So, the traditional equitable relief is if you go down to the police and you request a restraining order, and you want to go to the court and have the court tell your neighbor not to talk to you because the neighbor has made various threats. That restraining order preventing your neighbor from talking to you or coming within one hundred feet of you is equitable relief. In larger, more complex civil cases, there are similar injunctive relief comparable to restraining orders.
An Example of Equitable Relief Being Granted in a Business Dispute
For example, if Company B has your trade secrets and they are currently using them, you run to court and you say, “Your Honor, I filed the lawsuit. If a year later when this actually goes to trial and the court finds that they did misappropriate my trade secrets and they owe me a million dollars, that is not enough because that secret sauce being misappropriated with Company B is going to ruin our good will with the community, and there is no amount of money that can repair that. We cannot unwind the clock. So, we need you, your Honor, to tell Company B to immediately turn over all documents related to the secret sauce and immediately stop using the secret sauce. That is the only way to ensure that I will not be,” and the magic word is “irreparably harmed.” What Company A is doing is asking the Court to “restrain” Company B from doing something, which in this example is using the secret sauce formula.
There is Another Form of Relief Known as “Specific Performance” Which is Applicable to a Narrow Subset of Civil Matters
As I mentioned, there is a form of equitable relief called specific performance. This is where you ask the court to force the other party to do what the other party agreed to do. For example, if you have a contract and one of the contracting parties breaches the contract, if the contract related to a very special subject matter, then the plaintiff could force the defendant to comply with the terms of the contract. For the most part, specific performance only applies to a very narrow subset of matters, the traditional one being land. A piece of land on the Earth is unique in and of itself. There is no piece of land identical anywhere on the globe.
So, for example, my house. There is no house and piece of property that is identical to that piece of property. Whereas, you go out and buy a widget, there are other widgets out there. Or, if you try to buy a Honda, there are other Hondas with the same make, model, accessories, and options. But, for land, if I enter to a land sale contract with somebody and they back out at the last minute, I can say, “No, no, no, no. We negotiated this. I relied upon this. I want to force the sale of this house to me.” Forcing the sale of the house would be specific performance.