What is Estoppel?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

In an effort to maintain our pledge of brief and straightforward answers, I will cheerfully condense the legal definition of estoppel into a few well-chosen paragraphs. Those pursuing a degree in law may want to rely on another source for the bar exam. Estoppel is a very complex legal term dealing with the role of conscience and truth in a court proceeding.

An estoppel is a defense against a party reneging on a previous statement assumed to be a legal truth.
An estoppel is a defense against a party reneging on a previous statement assumed to be a legal truth.

An estoppel is a defense against a party reneging on a previous statement assumed to be a legal truth. Once a statement of fact is entered into a court case, the person who made that statement must stand by its truthfulness. He or she cannot claim a new position in a future business or private dealing. If the other party makes a decision based on the untruthful second statement and a lawsuit ensues, they can claim an estoppel in court against the plaintiff. In order for the estoppel to be considered valid, however, the defendant needs to demonstrate damages stemming from the untruthful statement.

For example, if a landlord tells a tenant that he or she only owes half of the monthly rent because of repairs, the tenant can reasonably treat that as a statement of fact. He or she may write a check for half of the normal monthly rent and assume he or she is in good standing. If the landlord later decides to sue the tenant for not paying the entire amount of the lease, the tenant may claim an estoppel in court. The landlord's verbal agreement to accept half payment should have been recognized as binding, even if the original lease was not changed. The tenant had a reasonable right to change his rent payments based on a perceived truth.

An estoppel is generally a defensive move, not a first strike. The plaintiff in a case can claim a number of reasons why the defendant should honor a contract or pay damages, for example. The defense must demonstrate that the plaintiff's own statements go against established facts in order to claim an estoppel. There must also be evidence that the defendant based his actions strictly on the reliance of truth and that he suffered damages because of it. Enforcement of an estoppel is generally left up to the discretion of the individual judge hearing the case.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I teach and was established at a certain rate of pay on the WA salary scale for years of experience. I taught at the CC level and this does not require certification but, in accordance with WAC 391-121-264, section 1 (b), I was given credit for that time. I have transferred districts and the new district is denying that time because certification was not required.

I believe they are wrong in law, but aside from that, I believe estoppel, as a concept, applies. Please help me phrase the memo correctly. Do I say, the legal concept of equitable estoppel applies in my case, regardless of whether you agree that I am entitled, under WAC 392-121-264 to X+ years of experience?

Two different districts have paid me based on the placement I received in 2004. New person in personnel in new district seems to think if a certificate wasn't required, I can't get years of certificated experience. Thank you.


My husband did some business with the company that I work for (which I declared as per our process). Now they claim that it is conflict of interest and are not paying the invoices for the services rendered. The service started in last year already and now they decide that this is a conflict of interest. can the estoppel doctrine be applied in this case?


If a person sells an auto to someone and on the bill of sale, he states that he will keep insurance on the vehicle until he obtains the title (seller has to look for it) but then the son of the seller calls the insurance company to cancel the insurance (because the car was sold) without actually telling the seller - can I have an affirmative defense of estoppel?


Did you think you were getting a second loan without applying for it? Or did you guess that they were re-issuing the check by mistake?

Maybe I'm wrong but from reading your account, it sounds like you wanted to capitalize on their mistake in an avaricious way. I guess I think you're lucky they don't go after you for fraud, since it was pretty clear you hadn't signed another loan agreement and banks a) don't give away free money, and b) don't issue new loans without an application and an agreement.


I have been partcipating in my 403b plan through my company for several years, our plan was managed by company "M", last year I took out a loan from my 403b, and have been paying on the loan via automatic debit from my checking acct once per month. In April company "V" took over managing our 403b, my automatic debit payment did not come out of my acct, then a week ago I received a check from company "V" which was identified as "loan disbursement". Along with the check was a repayment plan for the loan, bi-weekly payments from now til 2011 every single payment was listed three pages in all, I assumed they must have re-issued the loan, because of the changeover, like refinancing was what I thought. It came at a perfect time, as my son is graduating in May, and I money has been tight. I deposited the check into my acct on Sunday, it posted to my acct on wed, at which time I proceeded to pay $1200.00 in bills and spend $1500.00 on a graduation gift for my son. On Fri the bank took back the $5000.00 they had credited to my acct, I called they bank, they said they were unable to cash the check from company "V". I called company "V" they said they had sent me the check by "mistake", and had in fact sent checks to a whole bunch of people by mistake. I asked did they not think they should have notified me of this "mistake" and the rep giggled, well yeah I guess we should have. My Bank acct is now overdrawn by $2800.00. I spoke with a supervisor at company "V", she said well we're not going to just give you money because we made a mistake. She said they would pay overdraft fees, and that is all. The overdraft fees will probably be about $350.00, which is nothing compared to the $2800.00 I now owe the bank. I have already told my son about the gift that I was so excited to give him, I was so happy to have paid some bills that were behind, and have money in my savings acct, and then I go to purchase a lousy cheeseburger at McDonalds, and my debit card is declined, That's how I found out about the "mistake". I am humiliated, and I am so angry I need to know what my recourse is? should I get a lawyer? do I have a case? Somebody please help me!!!!

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