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Supreme Court Makes It Harder for Government Defendants to Avoid Liability for Violating Civil Rights

Written by Noel Sterett on March 10, 2021 Category: Appellate and Constitutional Law, First Amendment, Free Speech

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in an important civil rights case titled Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski. The case involves a college student, Chike Uzuegbunam, whose free speech rights were violated when campus police ordered him to stop sharing his faith in front of the college library and threatened him with arrest, claiming his speech amounted to disorderly conduct. After Mr. Uzuegbunam filed suit, the college unilaterally changed its speech code and asked the court to dismiss the case as moot.

This is a common tactic of government defendants who have been sued for violating civil rights. They try to avoid liability for the constitutional harm they did to the plaintiff by making a policy change that helps going forward but does nothing to vindicate the constitutional harm the plaintiff suffered. When these cases are dismissed as moot, the plaintiff is given no recognition that their rights were violated, and they remain responsible for their own attorneys fees and costs. In turn, many meritorious civil rights cases are never litigated because would-be plaintiffs and civil rights attorneys cannot afford to take the risk that their case will be mooted.

Typically, civil rights plaintiffs can avoid having their case mooted by including a claim for compensatory or money damages. And when there is no basis to claim that the plaintiff suffered compensatory or money damages, plaintiffs usually include a claim for “nominal damages”–which has been described as a token amount, usually $1 dollar, that symbolizes that a constitutional harm was done to the plaintiff. In the Uzuegbunam case, the lowers courts had held that a claim for nominal damages alone was not sufficient to avoid mootness and dismissed the case.

On review, the Supreme Court, in a rare 8-1 decision with Chief Justice Roberts in lone dissent, held that a claim for nominal damages alone was indeed sufficient redress a plaintiff’s past harm, provide the plaintiff standing, and avoid mootness. This decision is important because it will help keep government entities accountable for their unconstitutional acts and will hopefully dissuade them from engaging in them in the first place.

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