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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
CHIKE UZUEGBUNAM, et al., PETITIONERS v.
STANLEY C. PRECZEWSKI, et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit
[March 8, 2021]
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.
At all stages of litigation, a plaintiff must maintain a personal interest in the dispute. The doctrine of standing generally assesses whether that interest exists at the outset, while the doctrine of mootness considers whether it exists throughout the proceedings. To demonstrate standing, the plaintiff must not only establish an injury that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct but must also seek a remedy that redresses that injury. And if in the course of litigation a court finds that it can no longer provide a plaintiff with any effectual relief, the case generally is moot. This case asks whether an award of nominal damages by itself can redress a past injury. We hold that it can.
According to the complaint, Chike Uzuegbunam is an evangelical Christian who believes that an important part of exercising his religion includes sharing his faith. In 2016, Uzuegbunam decided to share his faith at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public college where he was enrolled as a student. At an outdoor plaza on campus near the library where students often gather, Uzuegbunam engaged in conversations with interested students and handed out religious literature.
A campus police officer soon informed Uzuegbunam that campus policy prohibited distributing written religious materials in that area and told him to stop. Uzuegbunam complied with the officer’s order. To learn more about this policy, he then visited the college’s Director of the Office of Student Integrity, who was directly responsible for promulgating and enforcing the policy. When asked if Uzuegbunam could continue speaking about his religion if he stopped distributing materials, the official said no. The official explained that Uzuegbunam could speak about his religion or distribute materials only in two designated “free speech expression areas,” which together make up just 0.0015 percent of campus. And he could do so only after securing the necessary permit. Uzuegbunam then applied for and received a permit to use the free speech zone.
Twenty minutes after Uzuegbunam began speaking on the day allowed by his permit, another campus police officer again told him to stop, this time saying that people had complained about his speech. Campus policy prohibited using the free speech zone to say anything that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).” App. to Pet. for Cert. 151(a). The officer told Uzuegbunam that his speech violated this policy because it had led to complaints. The officer threatened Uzuegbunam with disciplinary action if he continued. Uzuegbunam again complied with the order to stop speaking. Another student who shares Uzuegbunam’s faith, Joseph Bradford, decided not to speak about religion because of these events.
Both students sued a number of college officials in charge of enforcing the college’s speech policies, arguing that those policies violated the
First Amendment. As relevant here, they sought nominal damages and injunctive relief. Respondents initially attempted to defend the policy, stating that Uzuegbunam’s discussion of his religion “arguably rose to the level of ‘fighting words.’ ” Id.,
at 155(a). But the college officials quickly abandoned that strategy and instead decided to get rid of the challenged policies. They then moved to dismiss, arguing that the suit was moot, because of the policy change. The students agreed that injunctive relief was no longer available, but they disagreed that the case was moot. They contended that their case was still live because they had also sought nominal damages. The District Court dismissed the case, holding that the students’ claim for nominal damages was insufficient by itself to establish standing.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. 781 Fed. Appx. 824 (2019). It stated that a request for nominal damages can save a case from mootness in certain circumstances, such as where a person pleads but fails to prove an amount of compensatory damages. But, because the students did not request compensatory damages, their plea for nominal damages could not by itself establish standing.
We granted certiorari to consider whether a plaintiff who sues over a completed injury and establishes the first two elements of standing (injury and traceability) can establish the third by requesting only nominal damages. 591 U. S. ___ (2020). We now reverse.
To satisfy the “ ‘irreducible constitutional minimum’ ” of Article III standing, a plaintiff must not only establish (1) an injury in fact (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct, but he must also seek (3) a remedy that is likely to redress that injury. Spokeo, Inc.
578 U.S. 330, 338 (2016); see also Gill
, 585 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2018) (slip op., at 13–14). There is no dispute that Uzuegbunam has established the first two elements. The only question is whether the remedy he sought—nominal damages—can redress the constitutional violation that Uzuegbunam alleges occurred when campus officials enforced the speech policies against him.
In determining whether nominal damages can redress a past injury, we look to the forms of relief awarded at common law. “Article III’s restriction of the judicial power to ‘Cases’ and ‘Controversies’ is properly understood to mean ‘cases and controversies of the sort traditionally amenable to, and resolved by, the judicial process.’ ” Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
v. United States ex rel. Stevens
529 U.S. 765
, 774 (2000) (quoting Steel Co.
v. Citizens for Better Environment
523 U.S. 83
, 102 (1998)); cf. Memphis Community School Dist.
477 U.S. 299
, 306 (1986) (relief for “§1983 plaintiffs . . . is ordinarily determined according to principles derived from the common law of torts”). The parties here agree that courts at common law routinely awarded nominal damages. They, instead, dispute what kinds of harms those damages could redress.
Both sides agree that nominal damages historically could provide prospective relief. The award of nominal damages was one way for plaintiffs at common law to “obtain a form of declaratory relief in a legal system with no general declaratory judgment act.” D. Laycock & R. Hasen, Modern American Remedies 636 (5th ed. 2019). For example, a trespass to land or water rights might raise a prospective threat to a property right by creating the foundation for a future claim of adverse possession or prescriptive easement. Blanchard
, 8 Me. 253, 268 (1832) (“If an unlawful diversion [of water] is suffered for twenty years, it ripens into a right, which cannot be controverted”). By obtaining a declaration of trespass, a property owner could “vindicate his right by action” and protect against those future threats. Ibid.
Courts at common law would not declare property boundaries in the abstract, “but the suit for nominal damages allowed them to do so indirectly.” Laycock, supra,
The parties disagree, however, about whether nominal damages alone could provide retrospective relief. Stressing the declaratory function, respondents argue that nominal damages by themselves redressed only continuing or threatened injury, not past injury.
But cases at common law paint a different picture. Early courts required the plaintiff to prove actual monetary damages in every case: “[I]njuria & damnum [injury and damage] are the two grounds for the having [of] all actions, and without these, no action lieth.” Cable
, 3 Bulst. 311, 312, 81 Eng. Rep. 259 (K. B. 1625). Later courts, however, reasoned that every
legal injury necessarily causes damage, so they awarded nominal damages absent evidence of other damages (such as compensatory, statutory, or punitive damages), and they did so where there was no apparent continuing or threatened injury for nominal damages to redress. See, e.g., Barker
, 2 Bing. 317, 130 Eng. Rep. 327 (C. P. 1824) (nominal damages awarded for 1-day delay in arrest because “if there was a breach of duty the law would presume some damage”); Hatch
, 2 F. & F. 467, 479, 485–486, 175 Eng. Rep. 1145, 1150, 1153 (N. P. 1861) (ineffective assistance by criminal defense attorney that does not prejudice the client); Dods
, 15 C. B. N. S. 621, 624, 627, 143 Eng. Rep. 929, 930–931 (C. P. 1864) (breach of contract); Marzetti
, 1 B. & Ad. 415, 417–418, 423–428, 109 Eng. Rep. 842, 843, 845–847 (K. B. 1830) (bank’s 1-day delay in paying on a check); id.,
at 424, 109 Eng. Rep., at 845 (recognizing that breach of contract could create a continuing injury but determining that the fact of breach of contract by itself justified nominal damages).
The latter approach was followed both before and after ratification of the Constitution. An early case about voting rights effectively illustrates this common-law understanding. Faced with a suit pleading denial of the right to vote, the court rejected the plaintiff ’s claim because, among other reasons, the plaintiff had not established actual damages. Ashby
, 2 Raym. Ld. 938, 941–943, 948, 92 Eng. Rep. 126, 129, 130, 133 (K. B. 1703). Dissenting, Lord Holt argued that the common law inferred damages whenever a legal right was violated. Observing that the law recognized “not merely pecuniary” injury but also “personal injury,” Lord Holt stated that “every injury imports a damage” and that a plaintiff could always obtain damages even if he “does not lose a penny by reason of the [violation].” Id.
, at 955, 92 Eng. Rep., at 137. Although Lord Holt was in the minority, the House of Lords overturned the majority decision, thus validating Lord Holt’s position, 3 Salk. 17, 91 Eng. Rep. 665 (K. B. 1703), and this principle “laid down . . . by Lord Holt” was followed “in many subsequent cases,” Embrey
, 6 Exch. 353, 368, 155 Eng. Rep. 579, 585 (1851).
The dissent correctly notes that English courts differed in some respects from courts under our system, but Lord Holt’s position also prevailed in courts on this side of the Atlantic. Applying what he called Lord Holt’s “incontrovertible” reasoning, Justice Story explained that a prevailing plaintiff “is entitled to a verdict for nominal damages” whenever “no other [kind of damages] be proved.” Webb
v. Portland Mfg. Co.
, 29 F. Cas. 506, 508–509 (No. 17,322) (CC Me. 1838). Because the common law recognized that “every violation imports damage,” Justice Story reasoned that “[t]he law tolerates no farther inquiry than whether there has been the violation of a right.” Ibid.
Justice Story also made clear that this logic applied to both retrospective and prospective relief. Id.,
at 507 (stating that nominal damages are available “wherever there is a wrong” and that, “[a] fortiori, this doctrine applies where there is not only a violation of a right of the plaintiff, but the act of the defendant, if continued, may become the foundation, by lapse of time, of an adverse right”).
The dissent discounts Justice Story’s statement, saying that he took a potentially contradictory position elsewhere and asserted that both actual damages and a violation of a legal right are required. Post,
at 7–8 (opinion of Roberts, C. J.). But in the same source the dissent cites, Justice Story said that nominal damages are “presumed” “[w]here the breach of duty is clear.” Commentaries on the Law of Agency §217, p. 211 (1839). Justice Story adopted the same position a few years later. Whipple
v. Cumberland Mfg. Co.
, 29 F. Cas. 934, 936 (No. 17,516) (CC Me. 1843) (stating that it is “well-known and well-settled” that “wherever a wrong is done to a right,” at minimum “nominal damages will be given”). And other jurists declared that “[t]he principle that every injury legally imports damage, was decisively settled, in the case of Ashby
, 17 Conn. *288, *304–*306 (1845) (citing many cases on both sides of the Atlantic, including Webb
). This history is hardly one of “indeterminate sources.” Post,
Admittedly, the rule allowing nominal damages for a violation of any legal right, though “decisively settled,” Parker,
17 Conn., at *304, was not universally followed—as is true for most common-law doctrines. And some courts only followed the rule in part, recognizing the availability of nominal damages but holding that the improper denial of nominal damages could be harmless error. Yet, even among these courts, many adopted the rule in full whenever a person proved that there was a violation of an “important right.” E.g., Hecht
, 5 Wyo. 279, 290, 40 P. 306
, 309–310 (1895); accord, Reid
, 132 Ind. 416, 419, 31 N.E. 1107, 1108 (1892) (“substantial right”). Nonetheless, the prevailing rule, “well established” at common law, was “that a party whose rights are invaded can always recover nominal damages without furnishing any evidence of actual damage.” 1 T. Sedgwick, Measure of Damages 71, n. a (7th ed. 1880); see also id.,
at 72 (citing Lord Holt’s opinion in Ashby
That this rule developed at common law is unsurprising in the light of the noneconomic rights that individuals had at that time. A contrary rule would have meant, in many cases, that there was no remedy at all for those rights, such as due process or voting rights, that were not readily reducible to monetary valuation. See D. Dobbs, Law of Remedies §3.3(2) (3d ed. 2018) (nominal damages are often awarded for a right “not economic in character and for which no substantial non-pecuniary award is available”); see also Carey
435 U.S. 247
, 266–267 (1978) (awarding nominal damages for a violation of procedural due process). By permitting plaintiffs to pursue nominal damages whenever they suffered a personal legal injury, the common law avoided the oddity of privileging small-dollar economic rights over important, but not easily quantifiable, nonpecuniary rights.
Respondents and the dissent attempt to discount this historical line of cases by contending that something other than nominal damages provided redressability. They argue instead that courts could award nominal damages only when a plaintiff pleaded compensatory damages but failed to prove a specific amount. In those circumstances, they say, the plea for compensatory damages is what satisfied the redressability requirement, and courts awarded nominal damages merely as a technical matter. We do not agree.
To begin with, the cases themselves did not require a plea for compensatory damages as a condition for receiving nominal damages. Lord Holt spoke in categorical terms: “[E]very injury imports a damage,” so a plaintiff who proved a legal violation could always obtain some form of damages because he “must of necessity have a means to vindicate and maintain [the right].” Ashby
, 2 Raym. Ld., at 953–955, 92 Eng. Rep., at 136–137. Justice Story’s language was no less definitive: “The law tolerates no farther inquiry than whether there has been the violation of a right.” Webb
, 29 F. Cas., at 508. When a right is violated, that violation “imports damage in the nature of it” and “the party injured is entitled to a verdict for nominal damages.” Id.
Respondents and the dissent thus get the relationship between nominal damages and compensatory damages backwards. Nominal damages are not a consolation prize for the plaintiff who pleads, but fails to prove, compensatory damages. They are instead the damages awarded by default until the plaintiff establishes entitlement to some other form of damages, such as compensatory or statutory damages. See, e.g., Dods
, 15 C. B. N. S., at 621, 627, 143 Eng. Rep., at 929, 931 (prevailing plaintiff entitled to nominal damages as a matter of law even where jury neglected to find them); see also Stachura
, 477 U. S., at 308 (rejecting the argument that courts could presume, without proof, damages greater than nominal).
The argument that a claim for compensatory damages is a prerequisite for an award of nominal damages also rests on the flawed premise that nominal damages are purely symbolic, a mere judicial token that provides no actual benefit to the plaintiff. That contention is not without some support. See, e.g., Stanton
v. New York & Eastern R. Co.
, 59 Conn. 272, 282, 22 A. 300, 303 (1890) (“Nominal damages mean no damages at all. They exist only in name, and not in amount”); but cf. ibid.
(still recognizing that nominal damages are appropriate when a right is violated). But this view is against the weight of the history discussed above, and we have already expressly rejected it. Despite being small, nominal damages are certainly concrete. The dissent says that “an award of nominal damages does not change [a plaintiff’s] status or condition at all.” Post,
at 3. But we have already held that a person who is awarded nominal damages receives “relief on the merits of his claim” and “may demand payment for nominal damages no less than he may demand payment for millions of dollars in compensatory damages.” Farrar
506 U.S. 103
, 111, 113 (1992). Because nominal damages are in fact damages paid to the plaintiff, they “affec[t] the behavior of the defendant towards the plaintiff ” and thus independently provide redress. Hewitt
482 U.S. 755
, 761 (1987) (emphasis deleted); accord, Mission Product Holdings, Inc.
v. Tempnology, LLC
, 587 U. S. ___, ___ (2019) (slip op., at 6) (“If there is any chance of money changing hands, [the] suit remains live”). True, a single dollar often cannot provide full redress, but the ability “to effectuate a partial remedy” satisfies the redressability requirement. Church of Scientology of Cal
. v. United States
506 U.S. 9
, 13 (1992).
The next difficulty faced by respondents and the dissent is their inability to square their argument with established principles of standing. Because redressability is an “ ‘irreducible’ ” component of standing, Spokeo
, 578 U. S., at 338, no federal court has jurisdiction to enter a judgment unless it provides a remedy that can redress the plaintiff ’s injury. Yet early courts routinely awarded nominal damages alone. Certainly, no one seems to think that those judgments were without legal effect. Those nominal damages necessarily must have provided redress. Respondents contend that a request for compensatory damages at the pleading stage was what provided the basis for nominal damages at the judgment stage. But a plaintiff must maintain a personal interest in the dispute at every stage of litigation, including when judgment is entered, Lujan
v. Defenders of Wildlife
504 U.S. 555
, 561 (1992), and must do so “separately for each form of relief sought,” Friends of the Earth, Inc.
v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc.
528 U.S. 167
, 185 (2000). As soon as a plea for compensatory damages fails at the factfinding stage of litigation, that plea can no longer support jurisdiction for a favorable judgment. The dissent’s contrary assertion is unaccompanied by any citation.
Likewise, any analogy to attorney’s fees and costs fails. A request for attorney’s fees or costs cannot establish standing because those awards are merely a “byproduct” of a suit that already succeeded, not a form of redressability. Steel Co.
, 523 U. S., at 107; see also Lewis
v. Continental Bank Corp.
494 U.S. 472
, 480 (1990). In contrast, nominal damages are redress, not a byproduct.
Because nominal damages were available at common law in analogous circumstances, we conclude that a request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element of standing where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right.
The dissent worries that after today the Judiciary will be required to weigh in on legal questions “whenever a plaintiff asks for a dollar.” Post,
at 9. But petitioners still would have satisfied redressability if instead of one dollar in nominal damages they sought one dollar in compensation for a wasted bus fare to travel to the free speech zone. The dissent “would place a higher value on Article III” than a dollar. Post,
at 1; but see Sprint Communications Co.
v. APCC Services, Inc.
554 U.S. 269
, 305 (2008) (Roberts, C. J., dissenting) (“Article III is worth a dollar”). But Congress abolished the statutory amount-in-controversy requirement for federal-question jurisdiction in 1980. Federal Question Jurisdictional Amendments Act,
2369. And we have never held that one applies as a matter of constitutional law.
This is not to say that a request for nominal damages guarantees entry to court. Our holding concerns only redressability. It remains for the plaintiff to establish the other elements of standing (such as a particularized injury); plead a cognizable cause of action, Planck
, 5 T. R. 37, 41, 101 Eng. Rep. 21, 23 (K. B. 1792) (“if no [actual] damage be sustained, the creditor has no cause of action” for some claims); and meet all other relevant requirements. We hold only that, for the purpose of Article III standing, nominal damages provide the necessary redress for a completed violation of a legal right.
Applying this principle here is straightforward. For purposes of this appeal, it is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him. Because “every violation [of a right] imports damage,” Webb
, 29 F. Cas., at 509, nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.[1
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.