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Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

Student Wants Nominal Relief From College For Restrictive Speech Policies

In the United States Supreme Court

ArgumentJanuary 12, 2020
DecisionTBD
Petitioner BriefChike Uzuegbunam, et al.
Respondent BriefStanley Preczewski, et al.
Opinion BelowEleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Chike Uzuegbunam, a college student at Georgia Gwinnett College, was handing out leaflets relating to his religious beliefs at an outdoor plaza on the college campus. Campus Police approached him and said he wasn’t allowed to distribute the materials there. Uzuegbunam would have to go to one of two designated “speech zones” to do that. And those zones usually had to be reserved in advance.

So Uzuegbunam reserved one of them. He went about his expressive activities at his reserved spot. Campus Police came along again. The officer said the police received calls about Uzuegbunam’s activities. Uzuegbunam had not reserved for “open air speaking,” so the police issued him a warning that he was in violation of the school policies and must stop.

The Lawsuit

Uzuegbunam stopped. And then he sued. He alleged the school’s speech and expression policies violated his First Amendment rights. They were too restrictive. Uzuegbunam asked the court to issue declarative injunctions that the school’s policies violate the Constitution. He asked the court to enjoin the school from enforcing the policies. He asked for nominal damages for having dealt with the wrongful policies. 

Before the case was tried, the school gave in. The school changed the policies and resolved the issues Uzuegbunam complained of. 

Article III and Mootness

Federal courts don’t take theoretical cases. They only take cases that need resolution. That’s what it says in Article III of the Constitution. No “moot” cases.

Now that the school removed the policies at issue in this case, it would seem the case doesn’t need resolution anymore. Unless Uzuegbunam had suffered some injury and needed monetary relief. 

However Uzuegbunam didn’t properly ask for compensatory damages. He only asked for nominal damages in the case. Nominal is barely real, right? But are nominal damages enough to keep a case from being moot? That’s the question in this case.

Can Nominal Damages Keep The Case Alive?

The lower court ruled that the case is “moot” (must be dismissed) because a claim for nominal damages is not adequate for the case to be a real “case or controversy” under Article III. The lower court said that if Uzuegbunam had properly requested (and was seeking to prove) compensatory damages, or more substantial monetary relief, based on the harm he experienced, then the case would still be heard. Nominal damages could piggy-back off the request for compensatory damages. But a request for nominal damages alone cannot keep a case alive.

Uzuegbunam’s Argument

On appeal, Uzuegbunam argues that a federal court can still hear a case just to provide nominal damages. According to Uzuegbunam, Article III only requires that a case must be able to provide a remedy, and nominal damages is a remedy because it is “effectual relief.”

A case is moot only when it is impossible for a court to grant any effectual relief. Damages claims—including claims for nominal damages—offer effectual relief: they remedy past injuries and permanently alter the parties’ relationship. And no prospective change to a defendant’s policies or conduct can remedy or undo past, completed injuries. 

Uzuegbunam points out Supreme Court precedent purporting to show that a nominal damages award changes the “the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant’s behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.” Farrar v. Hobby (1992). Uzuegbunam distinguishes a nominal damages award from a declaratory judgement, stating that nominal damages are retrospective relief, like compensatory damages. A plaintiff seeking nominal damages is seeking relief from a past wrong, which is not erased just because the defendant stopped the action. 

Georgia Gwinnett College’s Argument

Georgia Gwinnett College argues that the case must be dismissed because a court cannot hear it with only a nominal damages claim. The only way a nominal damages-only case can be heard, according to the college, is if the plaintiffs are at risk of continued harm or if the defendants could repeat the same actions complained of in the case. In this case, however, the college points out that it has “permanently” revised its free speech policies. The plaintiff is not at risk of future harm; the issues have been resolved; and thus the case is moot.

The college presents its view that a nominal damage award is merely a symbol attached to a judgement that otherwise doesn’t get monetary relief. It’s not a compensation for damage at all; it’s a complement to a judgement. Given this view, if the court is not already granting a judgment, the request for nominal damages cannot get the claim into court on its own.

The Ruling Will Determine Accountability For Government Action

This case presents an important issue: If the government decides to change a policy only after being sued, does that provide a “get out of jail free” card for past wrongs? Often litigants bring important cases, not asking for monetary relief, but to get the government to change its ways. If the government changes its ways before a court issues a ruling of illegality, then the government has avoided the judgement — and the parties don’t get to rely on a court ruling to cement their view.

On the other hand, if a court is still willing to grant the judgement (based on a mere nominal damages claim, for example), then the court issues precedent that the government action is wrong. And it gives relief in the form of satisfaction to the parties who spent their effort to bring the case and to protect the rights of many. 

However, as Georgia Gwinnett College points out in its brief, the point of the “mootness” doctrine is to keep courts from granting “advisory opinions.” It’s not a court’s job to go around issuing statements on what actions are wrong – not unless there’s a live case or controversy, one in need of relief. This case is an important one to decide the boundaries of the mootness rule.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on January 12, 2021.

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

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About the Author

Mariam Morshedi

Mariam Morshedi

Mariam Morshedi is the Founder and Executive Director of Subscript Law. Before starting Subscript Law, she practiced civil rights law for AARP Foundation, where she litigated housing, consumer and disability rights issues.

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