The Court Just Awarded $1 — Is It a Victory? Nominal Damages Explained

Rachel Bayefsky Explains How Nominal Damages Are One Way Courts Rule on the Side of Dignity
Rachel Bayefsky

Professor Rachel Bayefsky studies dignity and respect in the legal system. Photo by Bill Petros

October 4, 2021

Someone has trounced on your rights. After a protracted legal struggle, the court finally awards in your favor. In fact, they give you exactly what you asked for. A dollar.

But what do those $1 awards really mean?

Professor Rachel Bayefsky of the University of Virginia School of Law studies dignity and respect in the legal system. Her new paper, “Remedies and Respect: Rethinking the Role of Federal Judicial Relief,” argues that the court system has an important role to play in affirming and restoring dignity through judicial remedies. The Georgetown Law Journal published her paper over the summer.

Bayefsky’s article was published after the Supreme Court’s March decision in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski. A Georgia college had prohibited the student plaintiffs from distributing religious literature on campus but later changed its policy. The case looked at whether a constitutional rights violation that has ended, and is unlikely to recur, may be set right through an award of nominal damages.

The court said, yes, the case may be heard. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, cited a history of common law courts providing similar redress for past harms. Whether Uzuegbunam and his fellow plaintiff will actually receive nominal damages now remains for other courts to decide.

In a Q&A for UVA Law, Bayefsky explained nominal awards and implications for courts moving forward.

How is a nominal award different than, say, a remedy when a plaintiff makes a small claim, and when is a nominal award sought?

A nominal damages claim differs from a “small claim” in the sense that a nominal damages award is not a lawsuit seeking a monetary sum of $1. A nominal-damages lawsuit seeks an affirmation of the plaintiff’s rights, and the mark of that affirmation is the dollar. So that’s why there is a distinction between nominal damages and actual damages.

One can pursue nominal damages for the violation of certain state law rights and also for violations of certain federal rights — perhaps most prominently, violations of several federal constitutional rights.

A dollar is a common amount for a nominal award. It could be also $5 or a hundred dollars or something like that. The point is not really the exact amount, but what the amount expresses.

Can you explain why some might oppose the idea that a plaintiff could bring a federal lawsuit for nominal damages alone?

If the damages exist “in name only,” which is what “nominal” means, then this remedy seems not to be providing redress for actual harm. The Supreme Court has interpreted Article III of the Constitution, in particular its “case or controversy” requirement, to mandate that plaintiffs demonstrate actual harm in order to get into federal court.

How can something as big as a rights violation be stuffed into something as small as a dollar bill?

The violation of rights does seem to be somehow incommensurable with a monetary amount. But the idea is that the violation of rights matters even if it does not give rise to compensable harm. Of course, the legal system can also signal respect for people’s rights through other remedies — punitive damages are sometimes cited as an example. And a nominal remedy does not always express respect; it depends on the social meaning of a nominal remedy in a particular context.

Other than sending a message, what are some other benefits of winning a nominal award?

If you get nominal damages as an award, that can make you a “prevailing party” within the meaning of certain attorneys’ fees statutes, and so provide a basis for you to recover attorneys’ fees. Another potential use for nominal damages is to serve as a hook for a punitive damages award.

How did the Supreme Court decision in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski earlier this year change the legal landscape?

The Supreme Court held that an award of nominal damages can redress a past injury and thereby ward off a mootness challenge — that is, keep a case alive. The court’s reasoning in Uzuegbunam seems to apply pretty broadly to many nominal damages claims, at least in cases brought to redress the violation of constitutional rights. So it’s a little unclear when someone could seek nominal damages and not be able to keep the suit going. It’ll be interesting to see.

At the same time, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing in dissent, suggested the court’s decision left open the possibility that defendants could moot nominal damages suits by handing over a dollar. Justice Brett Kavanaugh endorsed that prospect in a brief concurrence.

What are some other ways besides nominal damages that courts address dignity?

Courts may take action that expresses respect simply by resolving certain types of legal claims. For example, when a discrimination claim is brought before the court and the court decides it in a certain way, that can have an impact on the dignity of the people involved. You could also understand declaratory judgments to serve a dignitary function, at least in certain cases. The court is saying what the law is and telegraphing that to a broader audience. There’s also the dignitary aspect of procedure — the idea that people want to feel heard, and reasoned with, in the processes of litigation.

Where do you see greater room for the judiciary to provide dignitary relief?

Courts could move further in the direction of recognizing the expression of respect as a legitimate part of a judicial remedy. There are several doctrinal outlets through which courts can express respect: nominal damages, punitive damages, declaratory judgments. Courts should not dismiss dignitary harms as too unwieldy or insignificant to serve as the basis for a legal claim or a cognizable injury. Further, courts could uphold the dignity of parties through the language they use in their opinions.

The more conceptual point is that understanding dignitary relief as part of a complete remedy doesn't necessarily mean that you need to provide complete relief in every circumstance. But there’s value in recognizing that, when a court denies a dignitary remedy, judicial relief is less than complete; the injured party has not really been made whole.

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