Brief Fact Summary. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that students who were suspended from public elementary and secondary schools without procedural due process were entitled to recover substantial nonpunitive damages. The Petitioners, Carey and others (Petitioners), appealed and the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) granted certiorari.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Substantial damages should be awarded only to compensate actual injury or, in the case of exemplary or punitive damages, to deter or punish malicious deprivations of rights.
Issue. In an action under Section: 1983 for the deprivation of procedural due process, must a plaintiff prove that he actually was injured by the deprivation before he may recover substantial “nonpunitive” damages?
Held. No. The Supreme Court remanded for further proceedings with the instruction that if, upon remand, the federal district court were to determine that the students’ suspensions were justified, the students would be entitled to recover nominal damages not to exceed one dollar from the Petitioners.
Discussion. Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Lewis Powell (J. Powell) begins his analysis with an examination of the aims of 42 U.S.C.S. Section: 1983 (the federal statute that provides for civil action for deprivation of rights). The purpose of which, J. Powell writes, “was intended to create a species of tort liability in favor of persons who are deprived of rights, privileges, or immunities secured to them by the United States Constitution,” and specifically, he noted, “that damages are available under that section for actions found to have been violative of constitutional rights and to have caused compensable injury.” With regard to the type and breadth of damages, J. Powell wrote, “To the extent that Congress intended that awards under 42 U.S.C.S. Section: 1983 should deter the deprivation of constitutional rights, there is no evidence that it meant to establish a deterrent more formidable than that inherent in the award of compensatory damages.” Thus, J. Powell stated, “The purpose of
42 U.S.C.S. Section: 1983 would be defeated if injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights went uncompensated simply because the common law does not recognize an analogous cause of action.”
J. Powell then draws a delineation between civil rights actions and action under standard tort law: “In order to further the purpose of Section: 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 themselves were defined by the interests protected in the various branches of tort law. The experience of judges in dealing with private tort claims supports the conclusion that courts of law are capable of making the types of judgment concerning causation and magnitude of injury necessary to accord meaningful compensation for invasion of constitutional rights.”
Addressing the Respondents’ contention that an action under Section: 1983 is analogous to an action for defamation per se (in which no proof of injury would be required, J. Powell stated, “Although mental and emotional distress caused by the denial of procedural due process itself is compensable under 42 U.S.C.S. Section: 1983 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.” Thus, while damages would be proper, the extent of those damages becomes the issue, and J. Powell writes, “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.” Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision that if,
upon remand, the federal district court were to determine that the students’ suspensions were justified, the students would be entitled to recover nominal damages not to exceed one dollar from the Petitioners.