On September 29, 2020, CLS’ Center for Law and Religious Freedom filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of Uzuegbunam. In its brief, the Center argued that the award of nominal damages is an important form of judicial relief that provides a remedy to people whose rights have been violated. Nominal damages are a particularly important form of relief for college students, such as Uzuegbunam, whose rights are violated because they are likely to graduate in the years that it takes cases to wind their way through the court system. If relief for past violations (nominal damages) is tied to relief preventing future violations (injunctive and declaratory relief), then many students will be left with no ability to turn to the courts when their constitutional rights are violated.
On March 8, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Uzuegbunam. The 8-1 decision, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, said that Chike Uzuegbunam – who was silenced by Georgia Gwinnett College officials even after he had obtained a permit to proselytize and handout religious literature – can seek nominal damages despite the fact that the school ultimately changed course and Uzuegbunam subsequently graduated.
“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,” Thomas wrote. “Because ‘every violation [of a right] imports damage,’ … nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms.”
The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit panel’s opinion, holding that “an award of nominal damages by itself can redress a past injury.” The Eleventh Circuit then reversed the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision.
Finding themselves back in the district court, on June 22, 2021, Defendants sought to obtain dismissal of the case by depositing nominal damages of $2 with the court and having it paid over to Plaintiffs. On December 22, 2021, the district court held that the proposed actions by Defendants would not moot the case and ruled the lawsuit should move forward on its merits. In so doing, the district court ruled that government officials cannot escape the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that they can be held accountable for violating constitutionally protected freedoms.