Why might a court refuse to provide injunctive relief?

There may be several reasons a court would refuse injunctive relief. Because different injunctions are given at different stages of litigation, such reasons may vary depending on the moving party’s injunction request. The greatest difference between injunction types is the level of permanence. Therefore, depending on the individual situation, a court may grant one type of injunction, but refuse to grant another.

Types of Injunctions 

There are three main types of injunctions:

  1. Temporary restraining orders (TRO): A TRO is granted in an ex-parte proceeding, a one-sided proceeding done without the other person’s knowledge. This is an emergency remedy that ensures the person or entity subject to the TRO will not be able to frustrate the actions of the person seeking the injunction. Though a TRO still must meet the same standards as other injunctions, it is the easiest type of injunction to obtain. For this reason, the TRO is usually very temporary, lasting a maximum of 10 to 20 days, depending on state law. During this period of time, an Order to Show Cause will be scheduled, in which a court meeting will be held to allow both parties to speak their sides. After the Order to Show Cause, the court will either determine that further injunctive relief is not necessary, or will issue an injunction to cover a longer period of time - sometimes forever (a permanent injunction). Sometimes a TRO will lead the court to issue a preliminary injunction, which is an injunction that lasts throughout the duration of any other court proceedings on the matter.
  2. Preliminary injunctions: Unlike a TRO hearing, a preliminary injunction hearing requires that both parties receive notice and appear before the judge. Preliminary injunctions are orders that basically stop the other party’s actions until all litigation is over, and the judgment has become final. A preliminary injunction can also be terminated during the litigation by a special court order. Many times a court will require a bond to be posted by the party seeking the injunction to ensure the enjoined party is compensated if the injunction is eventually found to be unnecessary.
  3. Permanent injunctions: If the court determines that an injunction should be part of the final judgment, then the preliminary injunction will become a permanent injunction. A permanent injunction lasts for the life of the enjoined individual or entity, unless a modification is obtained down the road.

Requirements

All three types of injunctions must meet the same legal requirements to be granted. An injunction is an equitable remedy granted by a court. Since an equitable remedy can be granted in many areas of law, a court will use the same factors to determine whether to grant an injunction regardless of the action or category of law involved. While many legal tests are created in order to find fault, the decision whether to grant an injunction is based on a balancing test.

The U.S. Supreme Court laid out four factors that must be met in order to obtain any kind of injunctive relief:

  1. a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits;
  2. irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted;
  3. a balance of hardships tipping in its favor;
  4. a favorable impact on the public interest.

Because the court will balance these factors, the likelihood of an injunction being issued will heavily depend on the facts of each case, and the discretion of each court.

Since the TRO and the preliminary injunction are issued before the final judgment of a case, the determinative factors for the issuance of these injunctions rest more heavily on whether there is a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of the case, and whether the balance of hardship is such that an injunction should be granted. The likelihood of success of the merits is relatively easy to show: generally the court will only need to find that there is a reasonable probability that your case will win. Many times this means that if a reasonable jury could decide in your favor, this prong will be met.

The balance of hardship however, is often scrutinized more closely. The moving party must show that the damage they will suffer without the injunction outweighs the damage the other party will suffer with the injunction.

On the other hand, before a court issues a permanent injunction, the likelihood of winning on the merits must be met; that is, the moving party must win their case. Further, before a permanent injunction has been issued, it has already been decided that the balance of harm weighs in the moving party’s favor. While the court will still consider the issue of the balance of harms before issuing a permanent injunction, it's two other factors that will generally weigh more heavily: the existence of irreparable harm, and a favorable impact on the public interest.

Equitable Defenses

At the preliminary injunction stage, the best strategic defense that the other party has is to show that they will suffer more damage by being enjoined to the injunction than the moving party will suffer without it. That being said, if there is greater likelihood of the moving party winning on the merits of their case, the court will pay less consideration to this balance of hardships.

Further, persons seeking injunctive relief typically have to show some sense of urgency in order for the court to act. If you were aware of circumstances for a while and did nothing about it, the court will be inclined to deny your request for injunctive relief. In another words, if you unreasonably delay in asserting your claim, particularly where the delay has prejudiced the other party, the defense of laches is applicable. The period of laches may be much shorter than the legal statute of limitations. The court in each case will determine whether the delay was sufficiently long and sufficiently unreasonable for laches to be operable.

"Unclean hands" is another defense to injunctive and other equitable relief. If you too are guilty of inequitable or wrongful conduct with respect to the particular matter at hand, the court is less likely to issue an injunction. The unclean hands defense arises out of the particular matter you are suing on and courts are not supposed to examine your conduct in other matters or question your general character in dealing fairly.

Getting Help

Whether you are interested in pursuing injunctive relief or you are being subject to an injunction, you should seek the help of a lawyer experienced in litigating for equitable relief. Since the four-prong balancing test is weighed completely in the court's discretion, and the consequences of an injunction may be permanent, it is wise to seek a knowledgeable attorney to build your best case or defense to present to the court.