What is an “injunction”?

An “injunction” is a court order that requires a person or company to do a particular thing or to stop doing a particular thing. Unlike damages, which are usually paid in the form of money, an injunction requires or prohibits specific behavior. Some actions that courts will issue injunctions to stop include domestic violence, stalking, discrimination, libel or slander, destruction or transfer of property, and infringing on intellectual property rights. Courts may also issue injunctions to require certain actions to begin or continue.

Several different types of injunctions exist. Which one the court chooses depends on the situation and where the parties are in the legal process. Some commonly-used types of injunctions include:

  • Temporary restraining orders;
  • Personal protection orders;
  • Preliminary injunctions; and
  • Permanent injunctions.

A temporary restraining order (TRO) is a type of preliminary injunction. Both TROs and preliminary injunctions are used before a civil case goes to trial. A court may issue a preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo until the court can hear the case. Often, a court will issue a TRO until it can hold a hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction.

When a court issues a permanent injunction, it usually does so after the end of trial, when it is clear what behaviors the injunction should prohibit or require. Contrary to its name, a permanent injunction does not have to last forever. Instead, most injunctions last only as long as required to prevent the harm involved in the case. An injunction may be issued along with a requirement that the defendant pay damages to the plaintiff, or it may be issued separately.

Courts are not required to issue injunctions. In most civil cases, a court will not issue an injunction unless one of the parties specifically asks the court to do so. When deciding whether or not to issue an injunction, the court asks a number of questions, including:

  • Is the person requesting the injunction likely to succeed in his lawsuit?
  • Are money damages insufficient to compensate the injured person?
  • Will the injunction harm the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right to due process? If so, how bad will the harm be?
  • Will not issuing the injunction harm the plaintiff? If so, how bad will the harm be?
  • Is the harm to the defendant greater or lesser than the harm to the plaintiff? Courts are more likely to issue injunctions if the plaintiff will be hurt a great deal without the injunction in place.
  • Is there time to give the defendant notice and a hearing to discuss the injunction?
  • Is granting the injunction in the public’s best interest?

Courts attempt to balance these factors when deciding whether to issue an injunction.

Since the decision whether or not to issue injunctions is left to the individual courts, the terms of an injunction may vary greatly from one case to the next. In most U.S. state and federal courts, however, court rules require judges to describe as clearly as possible the behavior the injunction targets. Injunction language that is difficult to understand or may have multiple meanings is usually resolved in favor of the person subject to the injunction.

Parties who ignore or violate an injunction may face several different court penalties. The most common penalty is being found in contempt of court, which may involve jail time, a fine, or both.

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