It’s a lot harder to settle a case that’s driven by a cause. When the case is about money, there is always a place where the parties can come to an agreement. There is always a number that the defendant will be grudgingly willing to pay and the plaintiff will be grudgingly willing to accept. But when the case is driven by a cause, by an effort to make a point, it’s a lot harder to come to terms. That’s why the recent SCOTUS case from Gwinnett College in Georgia is likely to lead to more difficult cases for school districts.
The Court held that the plaintiff could continue to pursue his lawsuit even though 1) he was no longer a student at the college; 2) the policies that the suit challenged had been revoked; and 3) he was not seeking money damages for any injury. In light of those three factors, Chief Justice Roberts considered the case moot, but all of the other eight justices disagreed. The plaintiff was still seeking “nominal damages” and that was enough to keep his case alive.
The media reports on this case have emphasized the oddity of the Chief being the lone dissenter. Perhaps this is no longer “the Roberts Court.” But I think there is another newsworthy aspect to this case. If plaintiffs can keep a case alive by seeking “nominal damages” public school districts are likely to see more litigation in support of a cause. Justice Roberts puts it this way:
Today’s decision risks a major expansion of the judicial role. Until now, we have said that federal courts can review the legality of policies and actions only as a necessary incident to resolving real disputes. Going forward, the Judiciary will be required to perform this function whenever a plaintiff asks for a dollar.
Justice Roberts can be a bit snarky:
The Court sees no problem with turning judges into advice columnists.
This decision will open the door to suits from students who have graduated or moved out of district, challenging policies that are no longer in effect, as long as they seek nominal damages. Justice Roberts points out that defendants will presumably be able to end such disputes by giving the plaintiff the “nominal damages” they seek, but he thinks this is not a good outcome:
The scope of our jurisdiction should not depend on whether the defendant decides to fork over a buck.
That’s the Gwinnett College case. And it will likely be forever known as “the Gwinnett College case.” That’s because the actual name of the case, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski does not trip lightly over the tongue. Whatever you want to call it, the case was decided by The Supremes on March 8, 2021.
DAWG BONE: NOMINAL DAMAGES CAN KEEP A CASE ALIVE.
Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!