Students at a public college brought a §1983 action against college officials, claiming that the college’s “freedom of expression” and “speech code” policies violated the First Amendment, and seeking nominal damages and injunctive relief. The college then revised its policies, and argued that suit was moot. The students agreed that injunctive relief was no longer available, but argued that their case was still live because they had also sought nominal damages. After the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the action, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether a plaintiff who sues over a completed injury and establishes the first two elements of standing (injury and traceability) can establish the third element (redress) by requesting nominal damages only. And the Court held that a plaintiff can.
Both sides agree that nominal damages could historically provide prospective relief, as “the award of nominal damages was one way for plaintiffs at common law to obtain a form of declaratory relief in a legal system with no general declaratory judgment act.” But the parties disagree about whether nominal damages alone could provide retrospective relief. “Stressing the declaratory function, respondents argue that nominal damages by themselves redressed only continuing or threatened injury, not past injury.”
But while early courts required the plaintiff to prove actual monetary damages in every case, later courts “reasoned that every legal injury necessarily causes damage, so they awarded nominal damages absent evidence of other damages (such as compensatory, statutory, or punitive damages), and they did so where there was no apparent continuing or threatened injury for nominal damages to redress….
“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….
“The argument that a claim for compensatory damages is a prerequisite for an award of nominal damages also rests on the flawed premise that nominal damages are purely symbolic, a mere judicial token that provides no actual benefit to the plaintiff…. Despite being small, nominal damages are certainly concrete…. Because nominal damages are in fact damages paid to the plaintiff, they affect the behavior of the defendant towards the plaintiff and thus independently provide redress. True, a single dollar often cannot provide full redress, but the ability to effectuate a partial remedy satisfies the redressability requirement.”
Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, No.19-968, 2021 WL 850106 (March 8, 2021).