U.S Supreme Court Supports Plaintiff’s Standing in Past Injury Claim

On March 08, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court passed an enlightening judgment on the standing of a plaintiff to sue for injuries incurred in the past which are fairly traceable to the conduct of the defendant. Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, No. 19-968 (Mar. 8, 2021)

The Supreme Court discussed the doctrine of standing. The doctrine of standing, or standing to sue, is a doctrine which determines locus standi of a plaintiff in a lawsuit. In other words, it is a constitutional limitation on plaintiff’s standing to file a lawsuit. For a plaintiff to have a standing in a lawsuit, it requires 1) an injury, 2) traceable to the defendant’s conduct, 3) which can be adjudged by the lawsuit. A case won’t bear any fruit if the developments have made it impossible for the court to provide appropriate relief to the plaintiff for the injury incurred by the defendant.

In the present case, the plaintiffs were two college students, who had sued public college officials for formulating and enforcing school policies barring them from engaging in religious speech on campus of the public college. The plaintiffs wished to preach evangelical Christian faith to their peers. For doing the same, they had set up an outdoor space near the campus library where they had conversations with interested students and handed out some religious literature. Soon after, the campus police intervened and told the plaintiffs that they could perform this kind of speech in only two “free speech expression areas” on campus, and also had to obtain a permit from the authorities to do so. As per the police’s orders, the plaintiffs then obtained a permit from the authorities. However, to their surprise, they were again stopped on the ground that they were violating a campus policy which prohibited speech that “disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)”.

The complaint alleged that the impugned policies violated the First Amendment and thereby pleaded for nominal damages and injunctive relief. However, as soon as the lawsuit was filed, the college rescinded the policy and therefore filed a motion to dismiss before the court as rescinding of the policies made the lawsuit moot. In reply to the motion, the plaintiffs claimed that the lawsuit still had ground as they were seeking nominal damages for the violation which occurred in the past. The district court and the Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of the college holding that the student’s claim seeking nominal damages was not sufficient to confer standing to the plaintiff.

On appeal, the case reached the Supreme Court. The court granted certiorari and reversed the lower court’s judgment. The Supreme Court held that the court can provide nominal damages under common law to redress past and prospective or ongoing injuries. Further, it held that nominal damages for injuries incurred in the past were sufficient “redress” to establish standing. The court stated that, “nominal damages are in fact damages paid to the plaintiff, [which] ‘affec[t] the behavior of the defendant towards the plaintiff’ and thus independently provide redress.”

Even though the Supreme Court threw light on the standing of the plaintiffs in past injury claims, it refrained from commenting on violation of First Amendment rights and cultural disputes in colleges.

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