On March 8, 2021, the Supreme Court decided Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, No. 19-968, holding that plaintiffs have standing to sue for past injuries fairly traceable to the challenged conduct, even if they seek only nominal damages.
The doctrine of standing is a constitutional limitation on a plaintiff’s ability to pursue legal claims. Standing requires (1) an injury, (2) traceable to the defendant’s conduct, which (3) can be redressed by the lawsuit. A case becomes moot if developments make it impossible for the court to provide plaintiff with relief that will redress the injury.
In Uzuegbunam, two college students sued public college officials for promulgating and enforcing school policies that precluded them from engaging in religious speech on campus. They claimed the policies violated the First Amendment and sought nominal damages and injunctive relief. After the suit was filed, the college rescinded the policies and moved to dismiss the case as moot. The policy change eliminated any claim for prospective injunctive relief, but the students contended their case was not moot because they still sought nominal damages for the past violation.
The district court and the Eleventh Circuit held that the students’ claim for nominal damages was not enough to confer standing.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. It held that nominal damages were available at common law to redress past, as well as prospective or ongoing, injuries, and that nominal damages for past injury are sufficient “redress” to establish standing. In reaching this conclusion, the Court held that “nominal damages are in fact damages paid to the plaintiff, [which] ‘affec[t] the behavior of the defendant towards the plaintiff’ and thus independently provide redress.”
Justice Thomas announced the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined. Justice Kavanaugh filed a concurring opinion. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion.