What does "De Minimis" Mean?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The term de minimis is a Latin phrase that has several uses in very different legal areas. Coming from the longer Latin term, de minimis non curat lex, the phrase refers to disagreements, disputes, or items that are too small to be noticed or handled by the court. The concept is used in the sale of bonds, copyright issues, and many areas of criminal and civil defense.

Applying the de minimis rule in court is a way to get trivial lawsuits dismissed.
Applying the de minimis rule in court is a way to get trivial lawsuits dismissed.

It is important to remember that de minimis is a common law concept, and not a codified law in most regions. Judges can choose to accept arguments that something is too small to matter to a larger case, or they can forbid it. It is also of some note that an item that is determined to be below the court's notice does not necessarily mean it is legal or fair; in fact, de minimis issues are often demonstrably unlawful.

Using the de minimis rule in court is generally a way to get trivial lawsuits expelled or dismissed. Examples of potential situations where the rule could be applied include a person suing a neighbor for $1 US Dollar (USD) for stealing a ballpoint pen. While the theft is actually unlawful, the costs to the court and the gravity of the issue are enough that a judge would easily find grounds for dismissal. Often, however, these cases never reach the court to begin with, since many legal systems weed out extremely low value cases before it comes to a judge or jury.

The rule can also be employed to dismiss small sections of much larger cases. If a man is accused of murdering his wife, and also of unlawfully stealing $10 USDfrom her purse, the judge could throw out the low-value theft accusation to focus on the far more serious murder charge. Other situations can sometimes occur following a settlement, if the winning party requests another lawsuit because the loser was told to pay $1 million USD in damages, but instead paid $999,999.40. Generally, this would be considered below the notice of the court.

In copyright law, de minimis usually refers to infringement cases. If a person is accused of infringement for using the same two notes in a song that exist in a copyrighted tune, the judge could throw the case out on the grounds that combinations of so few notes are fair use, and that the infringement, if it existed, was minimal enough to allow a clear and obvious distinction between the two songs. This rule can be applied to nearly every form of copyrighted material, from books to pictorial images, to films.

Some financial and tax law systems use a variation of the rule as well. Generally, in reporting tax figures to a body such as the Internal Revenue Service, extremely low-value gifts, winnings, or wages, are not required to be reported. If an employer gives his employee a $10 USD gift certificate as a bonus, this is generally not reported by either the employer or the employee, thanks to de minimis. The term has a different meaning in the sale and purchase of bonds, where a market discount on bond purchase is generally treated as a capital gain, not a discount, so long as it is under .25% of the value of the bond.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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