Carey v. Piphus
435 U.S. 247 (1978)

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Carey v. Piphus

No. 76-1149

Argued December 6, 1977

Decided March 21, 1978

435 U.S. 247

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. 435 U. S. 253-267.

(a) The basic purpose of a § 1983 damages award is to compensate persons for injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights. Pp. 435 U. S. 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. 435 U. S. 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. 435 U. S. 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. 435 U. S. 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

Page 435 U. S. 248

this case were justified, they nevertheless will be entitled to recover nominal damages. Pp. 435 U. S. 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.

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