Understanding the Judicial Estoppel Doctrine

Judicial Estoppel

This article will examine judicial estoppel, which allows the judge in such a case to take action and encourage consistent positions. It is widely accepted that the judicial process does not look kindly on those who choose to change their mind amid a case. The judicial process is based on the same party arguing in the same position in each of the proceedings in which they appear. When a party changes its earlier position from a previous proceeding, the opposing party and the judge may take action to stop the inconsistent positions.

Defining Judicial Estoppel

The doctrine of judicial estoppel is not a part of a statute or the Rules of Civil Procedure, yet the history of the practice is found throughout common law. It is the process through which the courts will prevent a party from taking a particular position on a topic because they adopted and argued an inconsistent position in an earlier proceeding.

The doctrine of judicial estoppel exists to protect against a law firm or party gaining an unfair advantage and causing an unfair detriment to the opposing party by adopting two positions in different proceedings. It helps preserve the integrity of the courts by prohibiting parties from adopting inconsistent positions in the later proceeding.

Judicial estoppel can also be used as an affirmative defense, meaning that a party may raise it against a claim the offending party is bringing. This is most common when the first position that a party took would bar them from asserting the claim that they have brought in the second court, and the opposing party would like to stop them from raising it. The defense may be filed as a summary judgment motion in reaction to a complaint.

The Elements of Judicial Estoppel

Five elements of judicial estoppel should be present for the doctrine of judicial estoppel to be applied under common law. The elements are as follows:

Same Party, Two Positions

The first element is the requirement that the same party, for example, the plaintiff in both cases, adopts a second position in a later proceeding that does not align with their earlier position. This means that a party’s initial and new claims would be at odds if brought up in the same proceedings and the issues are between the same parties.

Taken in District Court or Quasi-Judicial Administrative Proceedings

The court needs to find that the initial claims and new claims were brought in judicial or quasi-judicial administrative proceedings, meaning that the parties did not just present the claims in a conversation or letter but were fully presented to a judge or tribunal.

Success with the First Position

The following requirement is that the initial position was successful in the initial proceeding, meaning that the court found in favor of that party or the tribunal adopted the position. This element is required because a party who lost with their initial inconsistent position would likely not be barred from bringing another claim if the circumstances change. They need to adopt a new idea.


The party’s positions must be completely inconsistent, meaning that they are so contrary that both positions cannot be adopted simultaneously. If they are similar in some ways and inconsistent in others, there may be room to ask for additional court determinations.

No Mistakes or Fraud

The final element requires that the plaintiff or party did not adopt the position due to a mistake, misunderstanding, or fraud that caused them to embrace the claims. This can help a plaintiff with a different set of claims because they discovered the initial claim was based on fraudulent information.

Examples of Estoppel in the Judicial Process

There are several examples of estoppel throughout court history.

First National Bank of Jacksboro v. Lasater, 196 U.S. 115 (1905)

The first example came from the Supreme Court in a case involving bankruptcy schedules, where someone had filed for bankruptcy and then tried to assert a claim to a title. That decision stated that you could not hide a claim to property to defraud your creditors and not have to pay for your debts with the property. This helps legitimize the bankruptcy schedules and stop people from abusing the process.

Blix Street Records, Inc. v. Cassidy, 191 Cal.App.4th 39 (2010)

In a more recent decision, California Courts found that once a jury had been dismissed based on the parties stating that they had reached a settlement agreement, the plaintiff could not choose not to settle the case afterward. While this case does not necessarily reflect the feelings of other courts in New Hampshire to Fort Lauderdale, it does illustrate how dramatically changing the position can harm the parties and why the doctrine of judicial estoppel is important to protect integrity.

To learn more about the justice estoppel doctrine and other federal procedures, contact ADR Times today!

Emily Holland
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