Joel Dillard

Representing Mississippi Workers

How seemingly meaningless awards make constitutional rights meaningful

The Supreme Court recently decided an important case I've been watching all year. The issue was whether you can bring a case for only $1 in nominal damages in federal court. The answer given March 8, 2021, in an 8-1 decision in the case Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski from the Supreme Court, is yes - and it's a good thing too.

So why, you may be wondering, would anyone bring a lawsuit for one dollar? Actually, this is much more common than you might think, and much more important than it might seem at first glance. The facts of Uzuegbunam itself are a great example of why.

Chike Uzuegbunam was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, a state school run by the State of Georgia. He went to the commons where his classmates gather and began sharing his religious conversion experience with classmates and handing out religious literature. A campus cop came up and ordered him to stop because distributing religious literature was against the rules outside the free speech zone and without a permit. Uzuegbunam stopped. He eventually got a permit as instructed and then went to the free speech zone to share his story.

And yet, again, a campus cop came up and told him to stop because his speech was disturbing the peace and someone had complained. Uzuegbunam was threatened with discipline. He stopped speaking. Based on Uzuegbunam's experience, another classmate also decided not to speak about his religion on campus.

Both students sued. Now, neither had been harmed financially, physically or emotionally in any meaningful way. But their constitutional rights had clearly been violated. They sought two forms of relief:

  1. an injunction, which is a court order to prohibit the school from doing this again and requiring them to change their policy, and
  2. nominal damages of $1

The state initially claimed that they had done nothing wrong and the policy was constitutional. They later admitted otherwise (because the argument was garbage and they had no other choice) and changed their policy.

Once the state changed the policy, the state claimed the case should be dismissed because it was moot, which is a legal term meaning that there is no longer anything really at stake. Uzuegbunam and his classmate didn't go to school there anymore, and the policy had been changed, so there was no reason for injunctive relief at that point. Uzuegbunam disagreed, and said he still wanted to recover his $1 in nominal damages and sought to keep pursuing the case.

But why would Uzuegbunam want to keep fighting this case at that point? Hadn't he won what he really wanted? The answer is no - not really - because although the policy had changed, his lawyers had fought like hell for years to make it happen, and he had also spent money on filing fees and deposition costs. In other words, Uzuegbunam had actually been harmed because the College didn't immediately admit their misconduct and he'd had to fight hard to force them to change their tune.

Normally, when you win a civil rights case like this one the state has to pay your costs including attorney fees under 42 USC 1988. But - and this is key - the Supreme Court has previously said that when the state voluntarily changes their policy because you sued, you did not technically win the case, and so you do not get your costs and fees awarded. The Court has also previously held that attorney fees and costs are not enough to save the case from mootness by itself.

Thus, Uzuegbunam needs to actually win and to win something other than just fees and costs. He still needs to fight on for his $1 in nominal damages, because only when he gets that will the state also have to pay his costs including attorney fees.

You can see why this case is important to me. If it comes out the other way, the state can simply fight you forever and then, at the last minute - maybe even while the jury is out deliberating - they can just change the policy and then everyone that worked so hard to make them change it are left with nothing to show for it. No one would ever bring a civil rights case for injunctive relief ever again.

Although attorney fees barely came up in the Supreme Court's discussion, at oral argument it was clear that the Court understood that this was the key issue in the background. In order to preserve any real constitutional rights at all, nominal damages need to be available to keep the suit going to the point of judgment, or there will be no lawyers willing to take these cases.

This is particularly important in the First Amendment context because such cases are rarely about money damages, and are about the right to the speech itself.


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