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Seventh Circuit Affirms Award of $1.00 in Excessive Force Case

by Christopher Zoukis

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an award of $1.00 in a case where a jury found a prison guard had used excessive force.

The plaintiff, Sammy J. Moore, an Illinois state prisoner, claimed he was struck in the head twice by guard Peter Liszewski. A jury ruled in Moore’s favor at trial and determined that Liszewski had used excessive force, but awarded just $1.00 in nominal damages. Essentially, the jurors held that Moore was wronged yet suffered no damages. He appealed.

The Seventh Circuit’s opinion, authored by the always-engaging Judge Richard Posner, was notable for its questioning of the continued validity of nominal damages.

“It’s a considerable mystery why nominal damages, which rarely exceed $2 and more commonly are as in this case only $1, are ever awarded,” Posner wrote in the September 23, 2016 decision. “They have negligible value to the recipient, and doubtless impose a greater cost in the time and paperwork involved in the judge’s explaining nominal damages in the jury instructions and recording the award in the judgment.”

The Court of Appeals reviewed the common understanding of nominal damages, and made quick work of the typical reasoning for such awards.

“The explanation usually given for awarding nominal damages is that the award demonstrates that the plaintiff was victorious in the suit. But he wasn’t. The suit sought money, and yielded him a negligible amount.”

Exploring further, the appellate court found three principal reasons which could explain the existence of nominal damages. First, a lawsuit may be brought for determination of a right instead of monetary damages. Second, nominal damages may be awarded to ensure that attorney’s fees and costs are paid to the prevailing party in the suit. And third, sometimes a court requires a plaintiff to be awarded “actual damages” (with nominal damages qualifying as actual) prior to allowing an award of punitive damages.

In this case the Seventh Circuit upheld the award of $1.00 in damages, accepting that the jury found excessive force by Liszewski but no damages to Moore. Even so, the Court of Appeals wrestled with the conceptual absurdity of such an outcome.

“If the Plaintiff goes around bragging that he won his suit, and is asked what exactly he won, and replies ‘$1 dollar,’ he’ll be laughed at,” the Court wrote. “The plaintiff in our case of course wants more than just nominal damages. He argues that he was injured by Liszewski – that in the altercation Liszewski had struck him on the head twice with Liszewki’s walkie-talkie. But there was contrary evidence as well, evidence that the injury was attributable to the plaintiff’s having fallen and hit his head on a table, an accident not caused by Liszewski.”

Meanwhile, the district court awarded $1.50 in fees to the attorney who was appointed to represent Moore, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, which limits fee awards to “150% of the damages.” The court also awarded $95.62 in out-of-pocket costs to Moore’s counsel. This case spanned five years and included multiple appeals to the Seventh Circuit. See: Moore v. Liszewski, 838 F.3d 877 (7th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Moore v. Liszewski