In Uzuegbnam v. Preczewski, the Supreme Court held that the award of nominal damages is sufficient to redress a past injury, satisfying Article III’s redressability requirement. While at first blush, the opinion may appear to lessen the burden on any plaintiff in satisfying Article III standing, the more likely outcome is that the holding will be limited to the purely constitutional cases based on federal question jurisdiction. Nevertheless, creative “uninjured” plaintiffs may try to harness the ruling to proceed in federal court on nominal damages claims in cases not involving a federal question—for example a putative class action under CAFA diversity jurisdiction.
The background of the case is straightforward: an evangelical Christian student was threatened with disciplinary action for speaking in a free speech zone despite obtaining an appropriate permit. A campus policy officer told plaintiff that he violated school policy because his speech led to complaints.
Uzuegbnam and fellow student Bradford sued for violations of their First Amendment rights and sought only injunctive relief and nominal damages. During the pendency of the litigation, the college abandoned the challenged policies, rendering the injunctive relief moot. The district court held that plaintiffs’ sole pursuit of nominal damages was insufficient to establish standing and dismissed the case. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed. Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas explained that there was no question that Plaintiffs satisfied the injury-in-fact and traceability requirements for Article III standing. Thus, the only question for the Court to decide was whether a remedy of nominal damages could redress the alleged constitutional violation, satisfying the third and final standing requirement.
Justice Thomas answered this question by first analyzing the historical availability of nominal damages at common law. He concluded that the prevailing rule at common law was “well established” and that “a party whose rights are invaded can always recover nominal damages without furnishing any evidence of actual damage.” This rule developed because of certain “noneconomic rights that individuals had at that time” such as “due process or voting rights.” A contrary rule historically would have left litigants without any remedy. “By permitting plaintiffs to pursue nominal damages whenever they suffered a personal legal injury, the common law avoided the oddity of privileging small-dollar economic rights over important, but not easily quantifiable, nonpecuniary rights.” The majority emphasized that simply requesting nominal damages would not “guarantee entry to court” and “concern[ed] only redressability.” Any plaintiff still had to establish the other elements of standing, plead a cognizable cause of action, and “meet all other relevant requirements.”
Chief Justice Roberts dissented. His concern was that the Court’s holding meant that “any amount of money—no matter how trivial—‘can redress a past injury.’” This would require courts to give advisory opinions “whenever a plaintiff tacks on a request for a dollar.” And he placed “a higher value on Article III standing” than that. Absent allegations of actual damage or the prospect of future injury, an award of nominal damages “represents a judicial determination that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the law is correct—nothing more.” He likened the court’s role in that scenario to one of a moot court, not an Article III court.
While the Court appears to make it easier for plaintiffs to meet Article III’s standing requirement by simply asking for nominal damages, the holding could be fairly limited. Justice Thomas’s opinion concludes with the recognition that the case came before the court because of a “completed violation of . . . constitutional rights.” Thus, context may matter. This was about vindication of constitutionally-enshrined right to be free from government restraint—not a statutory requirement to provide the correct zip code in a credit report.
Because of the context, Uzuegbnam’s reach remains uncertain. Perhaps a standalone request for nominal damages remains limited to constitutional violations. But perhaps not. If not, this could allow a plaintiff that suffers any technical violation of the law—with no ongoing harm or actual damages—to plead nominal damages to satisfy Article III’s redressability requirement.
For this reason, the Court’s upcoming decision in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez will be instructive. There, the Court will have to resolve whether Article III (or Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23) permits a damages class action where most of the class suffered no actual injury. If the Court holds that some sort of injury is required, Uzuegbnam may be of limited import and truly limited to the case of constitutional violations. However, if the Court holds otherwise, Uzuegbnam might have further reaching implications.