Monday, March 15, 2021
The Supreme Court ruled last week that a plaintiff's request for nominal damages is sufficient to satisfy standing requirements and keep the case moving forward. The ruling is a significant win for the plaintiffs in the case, and for civil-rights plaintiffs generally; but it says nothing on the merits of the plaintiffs' claim. Instead, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings.
The case, Uzuegbunam v. Presczewski, arose when a couple of students at Georgia Gwinnett College tried to engage fellow students and distribute religious literature in the school's free-speech zone. Campus officers stopped them, however, citing campus policy that prohibits speech that "disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)." The plaintiffs sued College officials for injunctive relief and nominal damages. (Civil-rights plaintiffs often request nominal damages, $1.00, when their harm can't be quantified.) Rather than defending the policy on the merits, the College changed it, and moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the students' claim for injunctive relief was now moot, and that the students lacked standing based on their sole remaining claim for nominal damages.
The Court disagreed. Justice Thomas wrote for the 8-1 Court that a plaintiff continues to have standing to sue even when the plaintiff seeks only nominal damages. Justice Thomas said that courts at common law recognized suits for nominal damages, and that the common law did not require a plaintiff to seek compensatory damages in order to claim nominal damages.
Chief Justice Roberts was the lone dissenter. He argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing because "an award of nominal damages does not alleviate the harms suffered by a plaintiff, and is not intended to." More, "If nominal damages can preserve a live controversy, then federal courts will be required to give advisory opinions whenever a plaintiff tacks on a request for a dollar."
The case now goes back to the district court for further consideration. The Court said that one plaintiff--the one who actually spoke--stated a cognizable injury that could be redressed with nominal damages. If that plaintiff meets other all other requirements, his case will go to the merits. But the Court instructed the district court to consider whether the other plaintiff--the one who didn't speak, and only alleged that he was deterred from speaking--suffered a constitutional violation.