Brief Fact Summary. The Supreme Court of the United States considered the elements and prerequisites for the recovery of damages of students who were suspended from public elementary and secondary schools without procedural due process. Synopsis of Rule of Law. In absence of any proof of actual injury only nominal damages may be recovered.
Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.
Although essentially subjective, genuine injury in this respect may be evidenced by one's conduct and observed by others.
Facts. Jariuss Piphus (Plaintiff) was caught smoking on school property by the school principal smoking. The principal thought that Plaintiff was smoking marijuana. The assistant principal imposed the usual twenty-day suspension for violation of the school rule against the use of drugs. The Plaintiff argued that he had not been smoking marijuana. A suspension notice was sent to the Plaintiff’s mother. A few days later, a meeting was held to discuss the reasons for the suspension, but not to determine whether the Plaintiff had actually been smoking marijuana. Plaintiff and his mother filed suit against Defendants in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. Section: 1983 and 28 U.S.C. Section: 1343, alleging that the Plaintiff had been suspended without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiff sought declaratory and injunctive relief, along with actual and punitive damages in the amount of $3,000. Plaintiff was readmitted to school under a temporary restraining order. Plaintiff’s case was consolidated with another case brought by Silas Brisco (Plaintiff), who was also suspended without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Brisco refused to remove a small earring from his ear when asked by the school principal. The school had a rule against the wearing of earrings by male students, because the principal believed that this practice denoted membership with street gangs. Brisco was suspended for twenty days. Brisco field suit and sought declaratory and injunctive relief, along with actual and punitive damages in the amount of $5,000. Brisco was also readmitted to school under a temporary restraining order. Piphus’ and Brisco’s cases were consolidated for trial and the district court held that both students had been suspended without procedural due process. However, the district court declined to award damages due to lack of proof. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case. It also held that the district court was wrong not to give declaratory and injunctive relief, and that the district court should have considered the pecuniary value of each day the students missed when they were suspended. However, the court said that the Plaintiffs would not be entitled to recover damages representing the value of the missed school time, if on remand, Defendants showed that there was just cause for the suspensions. Further, even if on remand the Plaintiffs’ suspensions were justified, they would be entitled to recover substantial non-punitive damages because they had been denied procedural due process. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari.
Issue. Whether a Plaintiff must prove actual injury by a deprivation of due process before he may recover substantial non-punitive damages?
Held. Yes. The judgment is reversed and remanded. A plaintiff must prove actual injury by a deprivation of due process in order to recover compensatory damages. 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 occurred. The plaintiff must convince the trier of fact that he actually suffered distress because of the denial of procedural due process itself. Denial of procedural due process should be actionable for nominal damages without proof of actual injury since the right to procedural due process is absolute.
Discussion. The Supreme Court of the United States draws on the general law of tort remedies to determine a constitutional tort. The concept of tort remedies is that money damages should be sufficient to compensate the plaintiff for the harm caused by the defendant’s actions. Punitive damages are not designed to compensate but to deter wrongful conduct. Nominal damages are usually a small sum given when legal injury is suffered, but when there was no substantial loss or injury to be compensated.