Carey v. Piphus

In Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247 , 98 S.Ct. 1042, 55 L.Ed.2d 252 (1978), two elementary and secondary school students in Illinois had been suspended from school for twenty days without being provided appropriate procedural due process. The Supreme Court ruled that in the absence of proof of actual injury, students whose procedural rights were violated, but whose suspensions were justified on the facts, are entitled to recover only nominal damages "not to exceed one dollar." 435 U.S. at 266-67, 98 S.Ct. 1042. In so doing, the Court noted the common law foundation for granting nominal damages in certain cases: Common-law courts traditionally have vindicated deprivations of certain "absolute" rights that are not shown to have caused actual injury through the award of a nominal sum of money. By making the deprivation of such rights actionable for nominal damages without proof of actual injury, the law recognizes the importance to organized society that those rights be scrupulously observed; but at the same time, it remains true to the principle that 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. Id. at 266, 98 S.Ct. 1042. The Court thus remanded the case for determination of those nominal damages - that is, to determine whether the right that must "be scrupulously observed" has been violated, and what sort of nominal damages ("not to exceed one dollar," id. at 267, 98 S.Ct. 1042, but certainly an important dollar) should be awarded. That the Court held that "the denial of procedural due process should be actionable for nominal damages without proof of actual injury," id. at 267, 98 S.Ct. 1042, only underscores the argument that the denial of a substantive constitutional right is indisputably actionable for nominal damages. The Court recognized that "the basic purpose of a 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 damages award should be to compensate persons for injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights." Id., at 254; see ante, at 306-307. The Court explained, however, that application of that principle to concrete cases was not a simple matter. 435 U.S., at 257. "It is not clear," the Court stated, "that common-law tort rules of damages will provide a complete solution to the damages issue in every 1983 case." Id., at 258. Rather, "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 various branches of tort law." Id., at 259. Applying those principles, the Court held in Carey that substantial damages should not be awarded where a plaintiff has been denied procedural due process but has made no further showing of compensable damage. The Court repeated, however, that "the elements and prerequisites for recovery of damages appropriate to compensate injuries caused by the deprivation of one constitutional right are not necessarily appropriate to compensate injuries caused by the deprivation of another." Id., at 264-265. The Court referred to cases that support the award of substantial damages simply upon a showing that a plaintiff was wrongfully deprived of the right to vote, without requiring any further demonstration of damages. Id., at 264-265, n. 22.