By Lisa Soronen
The question the Supreme Court will decided in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski is whether the government changing a policy after a lawsuit has been filed renders the case moot if the plaintiff has only asked for nominal damages.
Georgia Gwinnett College students Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford sued the college over its Freedom of Expression policy, which only allowed students to engage in expressive activities in two designated areas after getting a permit. They sought an injunction preventing the college from enforcing its policy and seeking nominal damages. The college then changed the policy.
The district court concluded the students’ claims for injunctive relief were moot, Uzuegbunam’s because he graduated, and Bradford’s because the college changed its policy. Uzuegbunam and Bradford don’t challenge these conclusions.
The Eleventh Circuit also agreed with the district court that the students’ claims for nominal damages don’t keep this case alive because nominal damages would not “have a practical effect on the parties’ rights or obligations.”
According to the Eleventh Circuit, circuit precedent held that nominal damages have no practical effect absent “a well-pled request for compensatory damages.” Uzuegbunam and Bradford didn’t ask for compensatory damages. The parties disagree over whether they may have been entitled to them had they asked for them.
The students encouraged the court to take this case becuase: “Student plaintiffs are particularly vulnerable under the Eleventh Circuit’s rule. Their claims for prospective equitable relief are highly susceptible to mootness because students graduate and colleges often change offending policies when sued. Nor are students likely to suffer compensable harm from speech-suppressing policies, so they must rely on nominal-damages claims. If standalone nominal-damages claims cannot keep a case like this alive, students will be all too often left with no way to challenge violations of their First Amendment rights on campus. That will lead to fewer suits and more frequent constitutional violations.”
The Eleventh Circuit’s rule is advantageous to states and local governments who change unconstitutional policies upon being sued. Not allowing lawsuits for nominal damages to go forward will save states and local governments the expenditure of time and money on litigation where the plaintiff is seeking minimal relief.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.