Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

LII note: the oral arguments in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski are now available from Oyez. The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski .


Does a subsequent change of an unconstitutional policy moot plaintiffs’ claims that the policy violated their constitutional rights when their only remaining claims are for nominal damages?

Oral argument: 
January 12, 2021

This case asks the Supreme Court to decide whether a college’s change of an unconstitutional speech policy moots a claim that the original policy violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights when their claims are only for nominal damages. Petitioner Chike Uzuegbunam argues that a claim for nominal damages is not mooted by a subsequent policy change because nominal damages serve to vindicate plaintiffs’ past injuries. Uzuegbunam also argues that nominal damages serve an important function because they are distinct from declaratory judgments and there are no alternative remedies for victims of unconstitutional government conduct. Respondent Stanley C. Preczewski counters that nominal damages merely serve a prospective purpose, and therefore nominal-damages claims are moot when a constitutional violation is not reasonably expected to continue. Preczewski also argues that when a constitutional violation is completed, nominal damages only serve to provide declaratory relief and that other remedies, such as declaratory judgments, injunctions, and compensatory damages, can be used to address government violations of a victim’s constitutional rights. This decision will impact how governments respond to constitutional challenges and the administrative burdens imposed on the courts and government defendants.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether a government’s post-filing change of an unconstitutional policy moots nominal-damages claims that vindicate the government’s past, completed violation of a plaintiff’s constitutional right.


Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford were both students attending Georgia Gwinnett College (“GGC”) who shared similar religious beliefs and a desire to express those beliefs publicly. Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski at 3–4. In July 2016, Uzuegbunam was distributing literature that promoted his religious beliefs in an outdoor plaza on campus when a campus police officer approached him. Id. at 3. The officer informed Uzuegbunam that, under GGC’s “Freedom of Expression Policy,” the distribution of literature in the plaza was forbidden because students could only engage in expressive activities on campus in the two designated “speech zones,” which were available on a reservation basis. Id.

After this incident, Uzuegbunam reserved one of the speech zones in order to continue distributing his religious literature. Id. at 3–4. Shortly thereafter, Uzuegbunam was again stopped by campus police. Id. at 4. According to the officer, the police had received “some calls” complaining about Uzuegbunam’s religious speech. Id. The officer informed Uzuegbunam that he was again in violation of GGC’s Freedom of Expression Policy because his speech zone reservation did not include “open-air speaking,” which he was engaging in by speaking to passing students about his beliefs. Id. The officer also told Uzuegbunam that his activities constituted disorderly conduct under GGC’s Student Code of Conduct. Id. Given the threat of disciplinary action, Uzuegbunam ceased his expressive activities entirely and left his reserved speech zone. Id. The incident also deterred both Uzuegbunam and Bradford from making future attempts to distribute religious literature elsewhere on campus or to engage in any expressive activities in the designated speech zones. Id.

Uzuegbunam and Bradford then filed a complaint against multiple GGC officials, including GGC’s president, Stanley Preczewski, for violating their constitutional rights. Id. at 1. Uzuegbunam and Bradford sought a declaratory judgment that the speech policies in GGC’s Freedom of Expression Policy and Student Code of Conduct violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 4–5. They also sought an injunction preventing the enforcement of the policies and requested nominal damages for the violation of their rights. Id.

While the suit was pending, Uzuegbunam graduated from GGC, and GGC revised its speech policies to generally allow students to speak anywhere on campus without a permit and to remove disorderly conduct as a violation. Id. at 5–6. Thereafter, GGC filed a motion to dismiss the suit as moot, arguing its speech policies were no longer unconstitutional, and thus declaratory and injunctive relief were no longer necessary. Id. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted the motion to dismiss, holding that a claim for nominal damages could not save a complaint that was otherwise moot. Id. at 6–7. Uzuegbunam and Bradford appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which affirmed the district court’s ruling. Id. at 17–18, 20.

Uzuegbunam and Bradford petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari on January 31, 2020, which the Supreme Court granted on July 9, 2020.



Petitioner Uzuegbunam argues that according to Article III of the Constitution, a case becomes moot when a court is no longer able to grant effectual relief. Brief for Petitioners, Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford at 21. Therefore, Uzuegbunam argues that so long as there is some monetary relief sought, however small, the suit is not moot. Id. at 22. This relief, Uzuegbunam argues, includes both compensatory and nominal damages because they both affect the behavior of the defendant in response to an earlier violation of the rights of the plaintiff. Id. 22–23. Uzuegbunam claims that because nominal damages offer actual relief to the plaintiff on the merits of the claim, there is no need for corresponding compensatory damages to make the claim justiciable. Id. at 23. Uzuegbunam further argues that a subsequent change in an unconstitutional policy cannot eliminate a plaintiff’s right to relief for a violation of a constitutional right. Id. at 24. In support of this argument Uzuegbunam notes that nearly all of the circuit courts of appeals have held that a claim for nominal damages remains justiciable even after a defendant’s change in policy. Id at 24–25.

Uzuegbunam also argues that permitting stand-alone nominal-damages claims will not destroy the mootness doctrine. Id. at 45. Specifically, Uzuegbunam contends that invalid nominal claims would still be considered moot. Id. For example, Uzuegbunam argues that some statutes restrict nominal-damages claims, like § 1983’s bar on nominal-damages against state defendants in their official capacity. Id. at 45–46. Uzuegbunam also asserts that nominal-damages claims would still be unavailable in cases in which the plaintiff did not suffer an injury. Id at 46.

Respondent Preczewski counters that Article III requires a plaintiff to have a personal stake in a case to avoid mootness. Brief for Respondents, Stanley C. Preczewski et al. at 10–11. Specifically, Preczewski argues that the court must be able to “grant the plaintiff personal and tangible relief that is likely to redress his asserted injury.” Id at 10. Preczewski asserts that a remedy must provide a plaintiff a “real world” benefit that rectifies an injury. Id. at 11. For example, Preczewski contends that compensatory damages redress an injury by “making the plaintiff whole.” Id. at 17. By contrast, Preczewski argues that nominal damages are merely symbolic. Id. at 18. Preczewski contends that, therefore, nominal damages only prevent mootness if used to prevent a current or threatened violation of a plaintiff’s legal rights. Id. at 10, 21–22. Thus if the conduct has ceased, Preczewski asserts, the plaintiff no longer faces a potential injury and has no tangible benefits to gain from the damages. Id. at 12–13. While Preczewski acknowledges that nominal damages serve the public interest as “vindication of the rule of law,” he notes that Article III requires a plaintiff to claim a personal benefit, rather than a generalized public benefit, for a case to be justiciable. Id. at 22–23.

Preczewski further argues that allowing claims for nominal damages that allege no injury would upend the mootness doctrine. Id. at 43–44. Specifically, Preczewski asserts that permitting the claim for nominal damage in this case would allow plaintiffs to insulate their claims from mootness by merely claiming that a constitutional right was “chilled.” Id. at 44. Preczewski argues that the elimination of the mootness doctrine would encourage and draw out litigation and reduce incentives for defendants to correct unconstitutional policies. Id. at 45.


Uzuegbunam argues that his claim for nominal damages cannot be substituted with a declaratory judgment because nominal damages serve a different purpose. Brief for Petitioners at 26. Uzuegbunam contends that declaratory judgments were created to determine a legal right before a controversy has occurred to prevent future violations of the law, while nominal damages serve to vindicate a legal violation after it has occurred. Id. at 27. While Uzuegbunam concedes that declaratory judgments can sometimes be retrospective, he highlights that their general purpose is to guide future behavior. Id. On the other hand, Uzuegbunam asserts that the general purpose of nominal damages is to address past violations. Id. at 28. Uzuegbunam further argues that while nominal damages have some declaratory effect, so do compensatory damages. Id. at 29. Therefore, Uzuegbunam concludes that the declaratory feature of a nominal-damages claim cannot by itself render the claim moot, or else it “would moot all damages claims.” Id. Uzuegbunam also notes that a claim for nominal damages is not equivalent to a declaratory judgment because declaratory judgments are optional, while nominal damages are required if the court finds that a violation has occurred. Id. at 30. Finally, Uzuegbunam argues that the courts have recognized a distinction between nominal damages and declaratory judgments because they have continued to award nominal damages in the eighty years since Congress enacted the Declaratory Judgment Act. Id. at 31.

Preczewski counters that in the absence of a continuing or threatened injury, a claim for nominal damages serves only to provide declaratory relief. Brief for Respondents at 28–30. Preczewski notes that, historically, nominal damages were created to provide an avenue for declaratory relief in common-law courts, since declaratory judgments did not exist at that time. Id. at 28. Therefore, in common-law courts, the issuance of nominal damages served the purpose of indirectly declaring the existence or nonexistence of plaintiffs’ rights. Id. at 29. Preczewski notes that the cases which permitted nominal damages in common-law courts all involved rights that could be violated or threatened in the future, and thus, the declaration of those rights served to protect against future injuries. Id. at 31. Preczewski argues that while nominal damages were sometimes permitted even when they would not serve a prospective purpose, they were never treated as the primary or sole redress for a past injury. Id. at 34. Preczewski asserts that issuance of nominal damages in this case would be analogous to a declaratory judgment. Id. at 41. Since a court can only issue a declaratory judgment involving a “present right,” Preczewski argues that a declaration that GGC’s previous speech policies violated Uzuegbunam’s constitutional rights would merely constitute an advisory opinion. Id. at 41–42.


Uzuegbunam argues that if nominal damages for past injuries are considered moot, many victims of unconstitutional government conduct will be left with no remedy. Brief for Petitioners at 37. According to Uzuegbunam, constitutional violations often do not have quantifiable damages and therefore, nominal damages are often the only source of vindication of a victim’s claim. Id. Uzuegbunam further notes that if a nominal-damages claim is not enough to overcome mootness, then plaintiffs in these cases will be unable to recover attorney’s fees. Id. Uzuegbunam argues that the burden of attorney’s fees would discourage victims of constitutional violations from bringing lawsuits unless they had a corresponding claim for compensatory damages. Id. at 37–38. Uzuegbunam asserts that fewer constitutional lawsuits would result in government officials no longer being properly alerted that their actions are illegal. Id at 38. Fewer constitutional lawsuits, Uzuegbunam contends, would also result in fewer plaintiffs successfully overcoming qualified immunity defenses. Id. Uzuegbunam further argues that rendering nominal-damages claims for past injuries moot would also prevent other one-time violations, such as trespass and libel, from being litigated. Id. at 39. Uzuegbunam thus concludes that treating certain nominal-damages claims as non-justiciable would deprive victims of one-time violations, as well as completed constitutional violations, from receiving any remedy at all. Id. at 40.

Preczewski counters that completed constitutional violations, like Uzuegbunam’s claim, can be addressed by other existing remedies. Brief for Respondents at 46. Preczewski argues that constitutional violations can often be addressed through claims for prospective relief, such as injunctions and declaratory judgments. Id. Preczewski notes that while governments can try to manufacture mootness by preemptively repealing the alleged unconstitutional policies, Article III requires courts to examine mootness claims to prevent manipulation. Id. at 47. Preczewski argues that defendants have the heavy burden of proving that the constitutional violation is not reasonably likely to recur, ensuring that the legal system addresses constitutional violations. Id. at 47–48. Preczewski further asserts that if a constitutional violation is a one-time event, compensatory damages can address the past injury. Id. at 49. According to Preczewski, compensatory damages can be used to redress many types of constitutional violations, including tangible harms, such as monetary loss and physical injury, as well as intangible harms, such as mental pain and humiliation. Id. Preczewski argues that a claim for compensatory damages need only be “plausible,” and thus, compensatory damages can often address past intangible harms. Id. Moreover, compensatory damages, Preczewski asserts, allow plaintiffs to receive relief for past violations of their rights even if subsequent policy changes have occurred. Id. Preczewski also notes that while nominal damages are often used to allow a plaintiff to claim attorney’s fees, attorney’s fees are actually an independent redress which cannot be used to create justiciability. Id. at 21.



The American Humanist Association (“AHA”), in support of Uzuegbunam, argues that finding nominal damages insufficient to create a controversy would endanger religious liberty, as nominal-damages claims are often the only legal remedy citizens have to vindicate violations of their First Amendment rights. Brief of Amicus Curiae American Humanist Association, in Support of Petitioners at 9–10. AHA also asserts that First Amendment infringements always cause irreparable harm, so courts should not give governments a “free pass” by dismissing claims alleging such violations. Id. at 5–6. The Justice and Freedom Fund, in support of Uzuegbunam, also contends that litigation over constitutional rights raises awareness of important issues, which can lead to larger-scale legislative changes that better protect those rights for all. Brief of Amici Curiae Justice and Freedom Fund et al., in Support of Petitioners at 17.

The District of Columbia and eleven states (“the States”), in support of Preczewski, argue that dismissing cases as moot following subsequent policy revisions will protect the constitutional rights of citizens by incentivizing governments to remedy unconstitutional laws once they are challenged instead of defending them through the end of litigation. Brief of Amici Curiae District of Columbia et al., in Support of Respondents at 4–5, 8. The National Conference of State Legislatures and other local government associations (“local government associations”), in support of Preczewski, contend that such a rule would also serve the public interest by encouraging officials to act quickly and decisively during emergencies and fix harmless mistakes as they arise, without the fear of never-ending litigation. Brief of Amici Curiae National Conference of State Legislatures et al., in Support of Respondents at 20.


The Council on American-Islamic Relations (“CAIR”), in support of Uzuegbunam, argues that dismissing cases as moot based on subsequent policy changes creates an opportunity for government misconduct because governments will change their policies in the face of litigation in order to manufacture mootness, without any intention of actually abiding by their new policy. Brief of Amici Curiae Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Support of Petitioners at 13, 15–17. CAIR asserts that such a rule would decimate protections against civil rights violations, as plaintiffs will have their suits dismissed once the government revises or creates a new policy, yet the government is free to revert back to the unconstitutional policy and restart the cycle. Id. at 16–17.

Local government associations argue that governmental entities change their policies in the face of litigation for many reasons, including responding to unfavorable public opinion and conserving resources, so a revision is neither evidence of unconstitutionality nor bad faith. Brief of National Conference of State Legislatures et al. at 23–24. Local government associations also contend that public servants often have no legal training and work under intensive time pressure, so they are bound to sometimes misjudge whether proposed legislation is constitutionally compliant. Id. at 17. The States argue that subsequent revisions of allegedly unconstitutional policies signal defendants’ good faith attempts to conform their conduct to ever-changing legal developments and remain compliant with the Constitution. Brief of District of Columbia et al. at 9, 11–12.


The United States, in support of Uzuegbunam, argues that allowing litigation to continue over nominal damages will not impose significant administrative burdens because very few civil rights claims are likely to claim solely nominal damages, as constitutional violations often involve significant harm. Brief of Amicus Curiae United States, in Support of Petitioners at 28. The United States asserts that defendants can choose to avoid litigating the merits of those claims and conserve their resources by simply settling or accepting a judgment of nominal damages against them without contesting it. Id. at 29. The Public Citizen, in support of Uzuegbunam, further contends that adjudicating the merits of constitutional claims falls under the duty of federal courts to “say what the law is,” and thus, courts are obligated to adjudicate even nominal-damages claims in order to fulfill their duty of clarifying and facilitating the development of constitutional law. Brief of Amicus Curiae Public Citizen, in Support of Petitioners at 11–12.

The States counter that refusing to dismiss nominal-damages claims will substantially burden governments by forcing officials to divert extensive time and money from their regular obligations to prepare to defend themselves at trial. Brief of District of Columbia et al. at 13–14. The States argue that this litigation can drag on for years, which both strains judicial resources and drive up attorney’s fees that the government may be ordered to pay in addition to nominal damages. Id. at 14, 17. Local government associations further contend that states cannot simply concede claims to conserve resources, as the United States suggests, because they will still be subject to the negative collateral consequences that accompany losing a lawsuit, such as increased insurance costs and ineligibility for federal funding. Brief of National Conference of State Legislatures et al. at 24.

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