Uzuegbunam et al. v. Preczewski et al.
Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit
No. 19–968. Argued January 12, 2021—Decided March 8, 2021
Petitioners are former students of Georgia Gwinnett College who wished to exercise their religion by sharing their faith on campus while enrolled there. In 2016, Chike Uzuegbunam talked with interested students and handed out religious literature on campus grounds. Uzuegbunam stopped after a campus police officer informed him that campus policy prohibited distributing written religious materials outside areas designated for that purpose. A college official later explained to Uzuegbunam that he could speak about his religion or distribute materials only in two designated speech areas on campus, and even then only after securing a permit. But when Uzuegbunam obtained the required permit and tried to speak in a free speech zone, a campus police officer again asked him to stop, this time saying that people had complained about his speech. Campus policy at that time prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” The officer told Uzuegbunam that his speech violated campus policy because it had led to complaints, and the officer threatened Uzuegbunam with disciplinary action if he continued. Uzuegbunam again complied with the order to stop speaking. Another student who shares Uzuegbunam’s faith, Joseph Bradford, decided not to speak about religion because of these events. Both Uzuegbunam and Bradford sued certain college officials charged with enforcement of the college’s speech policies, arguing that these policies violated the First Amendment. As relevant here, the students sought injunctive relief and nominal damages. The college officials ultimately chose to discontinue the challenged policies rather than to defend them, and they sought dismissal on the ground that the policy change left the students without standing to sue. The parties agreed that the policy change rendered the students’ request for injunctive relief moot, but disputed whether the students had standing to maintain the suit based on their remaining claim for nominal damages. The Eleventh Circuit held that while a request for nominal damages can sometimes save a case from mootness, such as where a person pleads but fails to prove an amount of compensatory damages, the students’ plea for nominal damages alone could not by itself establish standing.
Held: A request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element necessary for Article III standing where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right. Pp. 3–12.
(a) To establish Article III standing, the Constitution requires a plaintiff to identify an injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct and to seek a remedy likely to redress that injury. Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 578 U. S. 330, 338. The dispute here concerns whether the remedy Uzuegbunam sought—nominal damages—can redress the completed constitutional violation that he alleges occurred when campus officials enforced the speech policies against him. The Court looks to the forms of relief awarded at common law to determine whether nominal damages can redress a past injury. The prevailing rule at common law was that a party whose rights are invaded can always recover nominal damages without furnishing evidence of actual damage. By permitting plaintiffs to pursue nominal damages whenever they suffered a personal legal injury, the common law avoided the oddity of privileging small economic rights over important, but not easily quantifiable, nonpecuniary rights. Pp. 3–8.
(b) The common law did not require a plea for compensatory damages as a prerequisite to an award of nominal damages. Nominal damages are not purely symbolic. They are instead the damages awarded by default until the plaintiff establishes entitlement to some other form of damages. A single dollar often will not provide full redress, but the partial remedy satisfies the redressability requirement. Church of Scientology of Cal. v. United States, 506 U. S. 9, 13. Respondents’ argument that a plea for compensatory damages is necessary to confer jurisdiction also does not square with established principles of standing. And unlike an award of attorney’s fees and costs which may be the byproduct of a successful suit, an award of nominal damages constitutes relief on the merits. Pp. 8–11.
(c) A request for redress in the form of nominal damages does not guarantee entry to court. In addition to redressability, the plaintiff must establish the other elements of standing and satisfy all other relevant requirements, such as pleading a cognizable cause of action. Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. Nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms. The Court does not decide whether Bradford can pursue nominal damages and leaves for the District Court to determine whether Bradford has established a past, completed injury. Pp. 11–12.
781 Fed. Appx. 824, reversed and remanded.
Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, JJ., joined. Kavanaugh, J., filed a concurring opinion. Roberts, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion.