Monday, March 8, 2021
SCOTUS Decision on Article III & Nominal Damages: Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski
Today the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, which addresses whether claims for nominal damages can satisfy Article III’s redressibility requirement. They can.
Here are some highlights from Part III of Justice Thomas’s majority opinion:
Because nominal damages were available at common law in analogous circumstances, we conclude that a request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element of standing where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right. . . .
This is not to say that a request for nominal damages guarantees entry to court. Our holding concerns only redressability. It remains for the plaintiff to establish the other elements of standing (such as a particularized injury); plead a cognizable cause of action, Planck v. Anderson, 5 T. R. 37, 41, 101 Eng. Rep. 21, 23 (K. B. 1792) (“if no [actual] damage be sustained, the creditor has no cause of action” for some claims); and meet all other relevant requirements. We hold only that, for the purpose of Article III standing, nominal damages provide the necessary redress for a completed violation of a legal right.
Applying this principle here is straightforward. For purposes of this appeal, it is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. Because “every violation [of a right] imports damage,” Webb, 29 F. Cas., at 509, nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.
Chief Justice Roberts dissents, arguing that Article III is not satisfied because “an award of nominal damages does not alleviate the harms suffered by a plaintiff, and is not intended to.” Even under the majority’s view, however, Roberts contends that “[w]here a plaintiff asks only for a dollar, the defendant should be able to end the case by giving him a dollar, without the court needing to pass on the merits of the plaintiff ’s claims.” And he further asserts that such a defendant might invoke FRCP 68 and thereby “render the plaintiff liable for any subsequent costs if he receives only nominal damages.”
Justice Kavanaugh joins the majority opinion, but he writes a one-paragraph concurring opinion endorsing the view—which was also urged by the Solicitor General in this case—that a defendant “should be able to accept the entry of a judgment for nominal damages against it and thereby end the litigation without a resolution of the merits.”