SCOTUS Opinion: Claim For Nominal Damages Saves Civil Rights Case From Mootness

In Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, two evangelical Christian students sued their college when campus police officers shut down their attempts to evangelize in designated “free speech expression areas,” requesting injunctive relief and nominal damages for the violation to their First Amendment rights. The college decided to get rid of the challenged policies, and then moved to dismiss the case for being moot. The district court dismissed the case and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that a plea for nominal damages could save a case only in certain circumstances not present in this case.

The Court, in an 8-1 decision by Justice Thomas, reversed, holding that a plea for nominal damages alone prevents a case from being moot because those damages, however small, provide relief. Citing to English law, the majority noted that nominal damages are “the damages awarded by default until the plaintiff establishes entitlement to some other form of damages,” and thus were equivalent to compensatory damages in terms of providing Article III standing. The majority also noted that cases involving a federal question have no minimum amount-in-controversy requirement. Justice Kavanaugh concurred, arguing that a defendant should be able to accept entry of a judgment for nominal damages against it in order to avoid a judgment on the merits. Chief Justice Roberts dissented alone, arguing that the majority’s decision would result in federal courts being required to give advisory opinions.

A link to the opinion is here: