It’s all over the news – Stormy Daniels has filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump in Los Angeles civil court. From a legal perspective, that is all the news says. The stories then immediately get into the details of the underlying story.
But if you put aside the indelicate facts underlying this story, there is a very interesting legal question here. How does Stormy Daniels have a right to sue Donald Trump? How is she wronged? What cause of action does she have against him?
The answer is this is not your typical lawsuit. Ms. Daniels is not looking for money damages from the President. She is not claiming Donald Trump wronged her. This is a very special kind of lawsuit that is fairly rare in the experience of the average civil lawyer. This is a suit for declaratory judgment.
A claim for declaratory judgment is technically a lawsuit, so the press is not wrong. But it is not what you think of when you think of a lawsuit. It is better to think of this as sort of a “pre-lawsuit” action where the court has to make some decisions on strictly legal and technical issues before there is a “real” lawsuit.
Maryland allows a court to “declare” the rights of the parties to a contract or deed or similar legal instrument, in a situation where there may be some doubt as to what those rights are. The purpose is to allow the parties to resolve uncertainty and ambiguity in their legal status, without requiring a real, full on, lawsuit.
If there were no such thing as a declaratory judgment action, the parties to an uncertain contract would have to actually violate it and have a real lawsuit before a court would figure out what their rights are. That would require a breach (or potential breach) of the contract before you could get the court involved.
The Stormy Daniels case is a perfect example. She is claiming the contract between her and Donald Trump is not valid because he never signed it. She says it is not even enforceable, and therefore she can ignore it. By filing a declaratory judgment action, she can get the answer to that question now before she (potentially) violates the agreement and gets sued.
Otherwise, the only way to find out whether that is a valid contract is for her to violate it, let Trump sue her, and then see what the court thinks after a long and painful and expensive litigation process. Obviously, that would be the difficult way to get a relatively simple answer to a relatively simple question.
Behind the Scenes
As an attorney, i think I know what is going on behind the scenes. But let me first say I have NO inside information into this case. I am just speculating based on my experience as a lawyer.
We know Stormy Daniels threatened to tell her story about a month ago. Then everything went silent. What I think happened is that Donald Trump’s lawyer sent her a letter warning her not to go public in violation of the agreement, and threatening to sue her for huge damages if she did. In that situation, the right thing to do would be file this declaratory judgment action and get the court’s blessing before going public with her story.
There is another option. If Ms. Daniels is shopping her story around to a publisher or media outlet, the wise publisher or media outlet would force her to go through this declaratory judgment action before they publish her story. Otherwise, Trump could sue the publisher or media outlet for damages for publishing the story they know to be in violation of this agreement. In that case, the right thing to do is get the court to declare the rights of the parties before Ms. Daniels can tell her story.
Donald Trump and his attorney have denied all of the allegations raised by Stormy Daniels, including the allegation that they had any sort of relationship.
But that is not all. The agreement signed by Ms. Daniels contains an arbitration clause. That means the agreement requires the parties to litigate any dispute about it in private arbitration – not open court. So the court may find that this entire matter has to go to arbitration. If so, there will be no public decision on the issues Ms. Daniels has raised. You will only know if she won or lost by whether or not she eventually publishes her story. If it stays in court, there will be a public order that anyone can see.
The Stormy Daniels vs Donald Trump lawsuit is interesting for a lot of issues. But it raises the interesting legal issue of declaratory judgment. This is a cause of action we do not often see, or get to litigate, but you should be aware of it in case you may have a need to file a similar “pre-lawsuit” to resolve your uncertain contractual rights.
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