435 U.S. 247 (1978), 76-1149, Carey v. Piphus

Docket Nº:No. 76-1149
Citation:435 U.S. 247, 98 S.Ct. 1042, 55 L.Ed.2d 252
Party Name:Carey v. Piphus
Case Date:March 21, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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435 U.S. 247 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 1042, 55 L.Ed.2d 252

Carey

v.

Piphus

No. 76-1149

United States Supreme Court

March 21, 1978

Argued December 6, 1977

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In actions by public school students under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against school officials, wherein the students were found to have been suspended from school without procedural due process, the students, absent proof of actual injury, are entitled to recover only nominal damages. Pp. 253-267.

[98 S.Ct. 1044] (a) The basic purpose of a § 1983 damages award is to compensate persons for injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights. Pp. 254-257.

(b) To further the purpose of § 1983, the rules governing compensation for injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights should be tailored to the interests protected by the particular right in question, just as the common law rules of damages were defined by the interests protected in the various branches of tort law. Pp. 257-259.

(c) Mental and emotional distress caused by the denial of procedural due process cannot be presumed to occur, as in the case of presumed damages in the common law of defamation per se, but, although such distress is compensable, neither the likelihood of such injury nor the difficulty of proving it is so great as to justify awarding compensatory damages without proof that such injury actually was caused. Pp. 259-264.

(d) The issues of what elements and prerequisites for recovery of damages are appropriate to compensate for injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights must be considered with reference to the nature of the interests protected by the particular right in question. Therefore, cases dealing with awards of damages for injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights other than the right to procedural due process, are not controlling in this case. Pp. 264-265.

(e) Because the right to procedural due process is "absolute" in the sense that it does not depend upon the merits of a claimant's substantive assertions, and because of the importance to organized society that procedural due process be observed, the denial of procedural due process should be actionable for nominal damages without proof of actual injury, and therefore, if it is determined that the suspensions of the students in

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this case were justified, they nevertheless will be entitled to recover nominal damages. Pp. 266-267.

545 F.2d 30, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., concurred in the result. BLACKMUN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

POWELL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we consider the elements and prerequisites for recovery of damages by students who were suspended from public elementary and secondary schools without procedural due process. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the students are entitled to recover substantial nonpunitive damages even if their suspensions [98 S.Ct. 1043] were justified, and even if they do not prove that any other actual injury was caused by the denial of procedural due process. We disagree, and hold that, in the absence of proof of actual injury, the students are entitled to recover only nominal damages.

I

Respondent Jarius Piphus was a freshman at Chicago Vocational High School during the 1973-1974 school year. On January 23, 1974, during school hours, the school principal saw Piphus and another student standing outdoors on school property passing back and forth what the principal described as an irregularly shaped cigarette. The principal approached the students unnoticed and smelled what he believed was the

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strong odor of burning marihuana. He also saw Piphus try to pass a packet of cigarette papers to the other student. When the students became aware of the principal's presence, they threw the cigarette into a nearby hedge.

The principal took the students to the school's disciplinary office and directed the assistant principal to impose the "usual" 20-day suspension for violation of the school [98 S.Ct. 1045] rule against the use of drugs.1 The students protested that they had not been smoking marihuana, but to no avail. Piphus was allowed to remain at school, although not in class, for the remainder of the school day while the assistant principal tried, without success, to reach his mother.

A suspension notice was sent to Piphus' mother, and, a few days later, two meetings were arranged among Piphus, his mother, his sister, school officials, and representatives from a legal aid clinic. The purpose of the meetings was not to determine whether Piphus had been smoking marihuana, but rather to explain the reasons for the suspension. Following an unfruitful exchange of views, Piphus and his mother, as guardian ad litem, filed suit against petitioners in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and its jurisdictional

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counterpart, 28 U.S.C. § 1343, charging that Piphus had been suspended without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The complaint sought declaratory and injunctive relief, together with actual and punitive damages in the amount Of $3,000.2 Piphus was readmitted to school under a temporary restraining order after eight days of his suspension.

Respondent Silas Brisco was in the sixth grade at Clara Barton Elementary School in Chicago during the 1973-1974 school year. On September 11, 1973, Brisco came to school wearing one small earring. The previous school year, the school principal had issued a rule against the wearing of earrings by male students because he believed that this practice denoted membership in certain street gangs and increased the likelihood that gang members would terrorize other students. Brisco was reminded of this rule, but he refused to remove the earring, asserting that it was a symbol of black pride, not of gang membership.

The assistant principal talked to Brisco's mother, advising her that her son would be suspended for 20 days if he did not remove the earring. Brisco's mother supported her son's position, and a 20-day suspension was imposed. Brisco and his mother, as guardian ad litem, filed suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. § 1343, charging that Brisco had been suspended without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.3 The complaint

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sought declaratory and injunctive relief, together with actual and punitive damages in the amount of $5,000.4 Brisco was readmitted to school during [98 S.Ct. 1046] the pendency of proceedings,for a preliminary injunction after 17 days of his suspension.

Piphus' and Brisco's cases were consolidated for trial and submitted on stipulated records. The District Court held that both students had been suspended without procedural due process.5 It also held that petitioners were not entitled to qualified immunity from damages under the second branch of Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308 (1975), because they "should have known that a lengthy suspension without any adjudicative hearing of any type" would violate procedural due process. App. to Pet. for Cert. A14.6 Despite these holdings, the District Court declined to award damages because:

Plaintiffs put no evidence in the record to quantify their

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damages, and the record is completely devoid of any evidence which could even form the basis of a speculative inference measuring the extent of their injuries. Plaintiffs' claims for damages therefore fail for complete lack of proof.

Ibid.

The court also stated that the students were entitled to declaratory relief and to deletion of the suspensions from their school records, but, for reasons that are not apparent, the court failed to enter an order to that effect. Instead, it simply dismissed the complaints. No finding was made as to whether respondents would have been suspended if they had received procedural due process.

On respondents' appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. 545 F.2d 30 (1976). It first held that the District Court erred in not granting declaratory and injunctive relief. It also held that the District Court should have considered evidence submitted by respondents after judgment that tended to prove the pecuniary value of each day of school that they missed while suspended. The court said, however, that respondents would not be entitled to recover damages representing the value of missed school time if petitioners showed on remand

that there was just cause for the suspension[s] and that therefore [respondents] would have been suspended even if a proper hearing had been held.

Id. at 32.

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that even if the District Court found on remand that respondents' suspensions were justified, they would be entitled to recover substantial "nonpunitive" damages simply because they had been denied procedural due process. Id. at 31. Relying on its earlier

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decision in Hostrop v. Board of Junior College Dist. No. 515, 523 F.2d 569 (CA7 1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 963 (1976), the court stated that such damages should he awarded "even if, as in the case at bar, there is no proof of individualized injury to the plaintiff, such as mental distress. . . ." 545 F.2d at 31. We granted certiorari to consider whether, in an action under § 1983 for the [98 S.Ct. 1047] deprivation of procedural due process, a plaintiff must prove that he actually was injured by the deprivation before he may...

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