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Three factors must be considered in applying judicial estoppel: First, a party's subsequent position must be clearly inconsistent with its earlier position. Second, courts regularly inquire whether the party has succeeded in persuading a court to accept that party's earlier position, so that judicial acceptance of an inconsistent position in a later proceeding might pose a threat to judicial integrity by leading to inconsistent court determinations or the perception that either the first or the second court was misled. Third, courts consider whether the party seeking to assert an inconsistent position would derive an unfair advantage or impose an unfair detriment on the opposing party if not estopped.
Plaintiff husband and the defendant wife were married in the Native American tradition by a Cherokee Indian. For 11 years after the ceremony, the parties lived together and conducted themselves as husband and wife. After the parties separated, the husband filed a complaint for annulment of the parties' marriage. After a trial, the trial court denied the claim for annulment because, while the marriage was not properly solemnized, the husband had asserted under oath and proved his marriage to the wife in an earlier adoption proceeding in which the husband adopted the wife's daughter. Plaintiff husband sought review of the decision.
Did the trial court err in denying the husband’s petition for annulment?
On appeal, the court found that the trial court's application of judicial estoppel was proper and, thus, it properly denied the husband's petition for annulment. The husband took the position that his marriage was voidable, a position that was clearly inconsistent with his sworn statements in the adoption proceedings. The adoption court had accepted the husband's assertion that he was married to the wife in permitting his adoption of the wife's daughter. Finally, the husband would impose an unfair detriment on the wife by undoing an 11-year marriage if he were allowed to proceed with his inconsistent position.