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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
DecisionMarch 8, 2021
Petitioner BriefChike Uzuegbunam, et al.
Respondent BriefStanley Preczewski, et al.
Opinion BelowEleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Case Decision

On March 8, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in favor Uzuegbunam. Uzuegbunam can seek nominal damages in court against Georgia Gwinnett College even after the college changed the speech policy Uzuegbunam challenges in the case.

Scroll down for our Decision Analysis.

Argument Analysis

January 10, 2021

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.

Decision Analysis

March 8, 2021

Supreme Court Rules 8-1 in Favor of Keeping Free Speech Case Alive

Chike Uzuegbunam, a former student at Georgia Gwinnett College, challenged the College’s speech policies, complaining they were unconstitutionally restrictive of speech. The policies limited individuals’ speech to certain “speech zones” around campus, which had to be reserved in advance.

Campus police shooed Uzuegbunam from speaking twice, including once after Uzuegbunam reserved a “speech zone.” Then Uzuegbunam sued, alleging the college policies on speech are too restrictive of individuals’ First Amendment rights to free speech.

Potentially Moot

After the suit was filed, Georgia Gwinnett changed the policies Uzuegbunam complained of. Presumably, the college was not optimistic about its arguments and wanted to save the cost of the litigation. 

Further, though, if the case were to be dismissed now that Uzuegbunam’s issues were resolved, the court would not cast a decision on the validity of the speech policy. The question before the Supreme Court is whether the case becomes “moot” now that the College changed the policies at issue.

Uzuegbunam’s Argument For Nominal Damages

Uzuegbunam brought the case primarily to get the school to change its policies. But he also brought the case because he wanted a court to validate his view. After all, if his argument is correct, then the school had no right to silence him when he was engaging in protected speech. His negative experience must deserve some recognition, right?

Thus, in addition to asking for the school to change the policies, when Uzuegbunam brought the case, he also requested “nominal damages.” That’s one dollar or some small but symbolic amount of money which doesn’t provide economic compensation, but it provides recognition to the litigant — the type of recognition that Uzuegbunam sought.

The College’s Argument for Mootness

Georgia Gwinnett College changed the speech policies at issue in the case. Then the college requested that the case be dismissed as “moot.” 

A case is moot when the relief isn’t necessary anymore. In this case, Uzuegbunam got what he wanted, so the court’s work is done. Nominal relief, according to the College, isn’t enough to defeat mootness. Nominal relief isn’t a stand-alone remedy. It’s only a remedy that a court can attach to a case that is otherwise ongoing. Let’s not waste a court’s time for a request for nominal relief, the College said.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court evaluated whether a request for nominal relief is enough to keep a case alive. Is nominal relief a “true” remedy or does it just play a supporting role?

The Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Uzuegbunam, with an opinion by Justice Thomas. Uzuegbunam has a valid case. The case will not be dismissed as moot.

In evaluating the question, the Court looked at the history of nominal damages. It determined that nominal damages indeed serve an important purpose. Not all rights are economic, thus not all damages can be quantified into dollar amounts. A court’s recognition of nominal damages is recognition filled a gap for violations of rights not easily quantifiable.

By permitting plaintiffs to pursue nominal damages whenever they suffered a personal legal injury, the common law avoided the oddity of privileging small-dollar economic rights over important, but not easily quantifiable, nonpecuniary rights.

The Court continued to emphasize the stand-alone nature of nominal damages by quoting an English common law judge, 

Lord Holt spoke in categorical terms:“[E]very injury imports a damage,” so a plaintiff who proved a legal violation could always obtain some form of damages because he “must of necessity have a means to vindicate and maintain [the right].”

The Court rejected the College’s argument that nominal damages can only come with a request for compensatory damages:

Respondents and the dissent thus get the relationship between nominal damages and compensatory damages back-wards. Nominal damages are not a consolation prize for the plaintiff who pleads, but fails to prove, compensatory damages. They are instead the damages awarded by default until the plaintiff establishes entitlement to some other form of damages, such as compensatory or statutory damages. 

In other words, nominal damages are not merely symbolic. “Despite being small, nominal damages are certainly concrete.” According to the Court, a plaintiff who receives nominal damages is vindicated. She has the right to demand payment of a $1 nominal damages award just the same as if she had the right to a $4 million judgement.

Chief Justice Roberts’s Dissent

Chief Justice Roberts stood alone in dissenting. Roberts would have dismissed the case as moot. He said the ruling will damage the courts by requiring them to issue opinions in every case where the plaintiff “tacks on a request for a dollar.” 

Roberts outlined the separation of powers concerns behind the constitutional “case or controversy” requirement. Courts are not meant to issue “advisory opinions.” They are only meant to provide decisions in real live cases — where the decision can actually provide relief to the complaining party.

When plaintiffs like Uzuegbunam and Bradford allege neither actual damages nor the prospect of future injury, an award of nominal damages does not change their status or conditionat all. Such an award instead represents a judicial deter-mination that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the law is correct—nothing more. The court in such a case is acting not as an Article III court, but as a moot court, deciding cases “in the rarified atmosphere of a debating society.” 

Roberts does not see nominal damages as a tangible benefit of a court’s intervention. A case that exists without any request for relief besides nominal damages is simply a litigant’s attempt to get a court to declare she is right. And that, Roberts says, is not what a court is for.

Roberts adds that the only saving grace of the majority opinion is that it may allow for a defendant to accept the entry of judgment for an award of nominal damages. That is, a defendant should be able to get rid of the case by agreeing to pay the nominal damages amount, but without getting a ruling on the merits.

Kavanaugh’s Concurrence

Justice Kavanaugh writes a concurrence in the case, agreeing with the majority that nominal damages can keep a case from being moot, but agreeing with the dissent’s last note. For Kavanaugh, too, a defendant should be able to just pay the nominal damages to have the case dismissed without accepting an adverse ruling on the merits.

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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