Mertens v. Hewitt Associates, 508 U.S. 248, 9 (1993)

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Opinion of the Court

resembles an action at law for damages," the Solicitor General suggests, "such relief traditionally has been obtained in courts of equity" and therefore "is, by definition, 'equitable relief.' " Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 13-14. It is true that, at common law, the courts of equity had exclusive jurisdiction over virtually all actions by beneficiaries for breach of trust. See Lessee of Smith v. McCann, 24 How. 398, 407 (1861); 3 Scott & Fratcher 197, p. 188.6 It is also true that money damages were available in those courts against the trustee, see United States v. Mitchell, 463 U. S. 206, 226 (1983); G. Bogert & G. Bogert, Law of Trusts and Trustees 701, p. 198 (rev. 2d ed. 1982) (hereinafter Bogert & Bogert), and against third persons who knowingly participated in the trustee's breach, see Seminole Nation v. United States, 316 U. S. 286, 296-297 (1942); Scott, Participation in a Breach of Trust, 34 Harv. L. Rev. 454 (1921).

At common law, however, there were many situations— not limited to those involving enforcement of a trust—in which an equity court could "establish purely legal rights and grant legal remedies which would otherwise be beyond the scope of its authority." 1 J. Pomeroy, Equity Jurisprudence 181, p. 257 (5th ed. 1941). The term "equitable relief" can assuredly mean, as petitioners and the Solicitor General would have it, whatever relief a court of equity is empowered to provide in the particular case at issue. But as indicated by the foregoing quotation—which speaks of "legal remedies" granted by an equity court—"equitable relief" can also refer to those categories of relief that were typically available in equity (such as injunction, mandamus, and restitution, but not compensatory damages). As memories of the divided bench, and familiarity with its technical refinements, recede further into the past, the former mean-6 The only exceptions were actions at law to obtain payment of money or transfer of chattels immediately and unconditionally due the beneficiary, see 3 Scott & Fratcher 198—and even then the courts were divided over whether equivalent actions could also be brought in equity, see id., 198.3.

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