In law, the term "equity" refers to a particular set of remedies and associated procedures involved with civil law. These equitable doctrines and procedures are distinguished from "legal" ones. While legal remedies typically involve monetary damages, equitable relief typically refers to injunctions, specific performance, or vacatur. A court will usually award equitable remedies when a legal remedy is insufficient or inadequate. For example, courts will generally award equitable relief for a claim which involves a particular or unique piece of real estate, or if the plaintiff requests specific performance.
The distinction arose in England where there were separate courts of law and courts of equity. Following this pattern in America, some states created chancery courts which deal only with equitable relief. In other states, the courts of common law were empowered to exercise equity jurisdiction. Today, separate courts of chancery have largely been abolished, as the same court that may fashion a legal remedy has the power to prescribe an equitable one.
Expansion of Equitable Relief
Courts are sometimes hesitant to impose equitable relief, particularly specific performance. This is because equitable remedies often require the courts to monitor the remedies to make sure that the defendant complies with the court order. However, the Supreme Court has been willing to encourage the use of equitable remedies in certain areas of law; see CIGNA Corp. v. Amara et al., 563 U.S. 421 (2011).
In CIGNA v. Amara the Supreme Court held that for violations of ERISA, the aggrieved party may be entitled to "obtain other appropriate equitable relief" in addition to legal remedies. In Montanile v. Bd. of Trs. of Nat'l Elevator Indus. Health Benefit Plan, 577 U.S. (2016), the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of equitable remedies for ERISA violations. In Montanile, the Court held that a party claiming equitable relief under ERISA is limited to the relief typically available in equity. As applied to ERISA, equitable relief will not extend to a plaintiff enforcing an "equitable lien against the defendant's general assets."
John Norton Pomeroy's A Treatise on Equity Jurisprudence: As Administered in the United States of America : Adapted for All the States and to the Union of Legal and Equitable Remedies Under the Reformed Procedure is generally viewed as an authoritative source on equitable remedies in the United States.
[Last updated in December of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]