An important element of practically any lawsuit is damages, or in other words, “the amount of money it would take to make this person whole again.” Sometimes, however, a person may not seek money but instead will ask the court to stop someone from doing something in the future. In such a case, at least until March 2021, if a defendant corrected the problem complained of by the plaintiff before the court had a chance to rule on it (and there was no additional claim for substantial money damages), the case would often simply go away because there was no longer a dispute.
The Supreme Court has flipped this practice on its head. In particular, the Supreme Court decided in Uzuegbunam v. Preczwski, 141 S. Ct 792, that if a plaintiff alleges even $1 in damages (“nominal damages”), the defendant cannot simply correct the error and seek dismissal of the case. Now, the court or defendant must still address the $1 in damages even if the underlying problem is gone.
About Uzuegbunam v. Preczwski
In Uzuegbunam, the plaintiff sued his former college, Georgia Gwinnett College, after campus police officers stopped him from talking to students about his religion and handing out pamphlets because it was making students uncomfortable. At the time, the college had a policy that prohibited people from saying anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” The plaintiff sued the school and asked the court to stop the school from continuing its policies surrounding free speech. Instead of specifying any particular amount of money he wanted, the plaintiff simply asked for “nominal damages,” meaning he had no measurable money damages that would make him whole.
During the litigation, the college discontinued the challenged policies and asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit because there was no longer anything in dispute. However, the plaintiff did not agree to dismiss the case and instead argued he still had a claim for damages, even if they were “nominal.” The District Court agreed with the defendants and dismissed the case, saying the claim for nominal damages was not sufficient to proceed with the lawsuit. The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court agreed with the District Court and also held that the plaintiff’s request for nominal damages did not give him a right to continue suing the college, because the college changed its policy and there was no longer a genuine dispute.
The plaintiff did not give up and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. There, the Supreme Court decided that by seeking nominal damages (i.e., even $1), a plaintiff can continue to sue even if the defendant corrects the underlying problem.
There remain some kinks to be worked out by the courts, including whether a defendant can just offer to pay the nominal damages and move on, or if the litigation can continue on its merits. Nevertheless, as of right now, plaintiffs who have cases that involve primarily asking courts to stop someone from doing something should seriously consider asking for nominal damages so they can stay in the driver’s seat and not allow the defendant to wiggle out of the lawsuit.
What this Means for Personal Injury Plaintiffs
As seen in this case, decades of law can quickly change and upend established legal mechanisms. As such, it is important to have a law firm like JRG behind you that stays on top of the latest developments and trends at both the local and national level so you can be confident in your legal strategy.
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