What is Sua Sponte? – And What are its Limitations?

William O. Kessler, Edmonds Lawyer

Sua sponte is Latin for “voluntarily.” In the legal context, sua sponte refers to issues that a court raises on its own, without the parties raising those issues. Which issues can the court raise on its own? And which can it not? The Washington Supreme Court tackled those very questions in the recent case Dalton M, LLC v. N. Cascade Tr. Services, Inc., 534 P.3d 339 (Wash. 2023).

Dalton – the Facts

The underlying facts of the case are largely irrelevant, but the procedural facts are critical. Dalton won at trial, and was awarded attorneys’ fees. On appeal, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court’s basis for the attorneys’ fee award.

Importantly, the Court of Appeals then, sua sponte, requested the parties give briefing on how else the Court might award Dalton’s attorneys’ fees. Upon receiving the additional briefing, the Court awarded fees to Dalton on an entirely new theory that no party had plead or argued to the trial court. Reversing the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeals had improperly raised this issue sua sponte. The Supreme Court explained the permissible scope of courts raising issues sua sponte, stating:

“[A]n appellate court may raise a new issue sua sponte if it is necessary to resolve the questions presented; an appellate court may not raise a new issue sua sponte if it is separate and distinct from the questions presented and unnecessary to resolve those questions— especially when the new “issue” is more like a whole new unpleaded claim depending on factual allegations that were never presented in or proved to the trial court.”

The Supreme Court held (1) sua sponte raising the new issue of attorneys’ fees was akin to an unpleaded claim, because the record lacked factual development related to the new issue that the Court of Appeals violated these rules, by, (2) that this new issue was novel and distinct from issues or theories raised before, (3) resolution of this new issue was not necessary to resolve the questions presented about the claims actually pleaded, and (4) resolution of this new issue depended on facts that the parties never had a chance to develop at trial.


In lawsuits, lawyers need to raise arguments for their clients. Courts do not possess unlimited authority to raise issues sua sponte. The Supreme Court explains that a court may not raise issues sua sponte that violate the above criteria, because such extraneous claims need not be adjudicated in order to properly decide a case on appeal. Further, such judicial action needlessly disturbs resolved matters, wastes judicial resources, creates unfair surprise, and risks insufficient advocacy on review.

To Learn More about these issues, please contact Beresford Booth at info@beresfordlaw.com or by phone at (425) 776-4100.

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