Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

Nominal damages ensure more than symbolic vindication of constitutional rights

Amicus Briefs > Freedom of Speech and Association > Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

In Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, the Supreme Court will decide whether the government can moot a civil rights case by rescinding its unconstitutional policy after being sued, even though the plaintiff seeks nominal damages for a past, completed constitutional injury—in this case, a college student’s First Amendment right to speak freely on campus. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, uniquely among the federal courts, held that the student’s case was moot because the college changed its unconstitutional “speech zone” policy, and the student did not claim any monetary injury.

In our friend-of-the-court brief, PLF and PLF clients Delaney Wysingle, Rentberry, Inc., Luis Ramirez, Michael Jackson, Tory Smith, and Jillian Ostrewich argue that the Supreme Court should reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to hold that proof of completed, past constitutional violations always justifies an award of nominal damages and prevent dismissal of a case for mootness.

  • Treating nominal damages as mandatory for vindication of constitutional rights elevates their role beyond a trivial sum of money. Nominal damages provide “moral satisfaction” to a plaintiff that a federal court agrees that his or her constitutional rights were violated, hold the government responsible for its actions, and creates an enforceable judgment requiring the alteration of the government’s behavior.
  • Nominal damages need not be specifically requested in a civil rights complaint because any successful civil rights plaintiff is entitled to them, and the federal rules of civil procedure explicitly permit recovery of appropriate relief regardless of whether it is named in the complaint.
  • The Civil Rights Act depends on private enforcement—plaintiffs who sue the government to vindicate their constitutional rights—and that enforcement is dependent upon finding an attorney who will take the case. The Civil Rights Act requires the government to pay a prevailing plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees, and an award of nominal damages makes it clear that the plaintiff prevailed.

Related Documents

PLF regularly participates as amicus curiae, or friend of the court, in cases brought by others. This supplements our direct representation cases by providing judges with unique, strategic, and helpful arguments to consider when crafting their opinions in related cases

PLF AC Merits Brief

September 25, 2020 Download

What’s at stake?

  • To properly hold governments to account when they violate people’s constitutional rights, successful plaintiffs suing under the Civil Rights Act must able to recover nominal damages even when the government correctly changes its unconstitutional policies.
  • Congress wrote the Civil Rights Act to encourage private individuals to sue the government when their constitutional rights are violated. Nominal damages, which trigger the fee-shifting provision of the law, enable such individuals to find legal representation—often provided for free by public interest foundations.

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