Carey v. Piphus Case Brief

Why is the case important?

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.

Facts of the case

“During school hours on January 23, 1974, the principal of the Chicago Vocational High School saw Jarius Piphus, then a freshman, standing on school property sharing an irregularly shaped cigarette with another student. The principal saw a pack of the cigarettes change hands and believed he smelled marijuana. When the principal approached, the students immediately discarded the cigarette. The students were suspended for the customary 20 days for violation of the school drug policy, despite their protests that they had not been smoking marijuana. A few days later, Piphus, his mother and sister, school officials, and representatives from a legal aid clinic met to discuss the suspension, not to determine whether or not Piphus had violated the school drug policy. Piphus and his mother sued the school official in federal district court for violating Piphus’ Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief as well as $3000 in damages.On September 11, 1973, Silas Brisco, a sixth grader at Clara Barton Elementary School in Chicago, received a 20-day suspension for wearing an earring to school in violation of school policy. The previous year, the school principal had enacted a policy banning earrings, as he believed they were associated with gang affiliation. When asked to remove the earring, Brisco refused and stated it was a symbol of black pride. Brisco and his mother sued the school officials in federal district court for violating Brisco’s right to due process. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief and $5000 in damages.The two cases were consolidated for trial and the district court held that their suspensions violated the Fourteenth Amendment and that the schools were not entitled to immunity, but the court did not award damages. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for the district court to reconsider questions of relief and damages.”


Whether a Plaintiff must prove actual injury by a deprivation of due process before he may recover substantial non-punitive damages?


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.


“Petitioners contend that the elements and prerequisites for recovery of damages under this “”species of tort liability”” should parallel those for recovery of damages under the common law of torts. In particular, they urge that the purpose of an award of damages under § 1983 [***259] should be to compensate persons for injuries that are caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights

  • and, further, that plaintiffs should be required to prove not only that their rights were violated, but also that injury was caused by the violation, in order to recover substantial damages. Unless respondents prove that they actually were injured by the deprivation of procedural due process, petitioners argue, they are entitled at most to nominal damages. Thus, 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 this case were justified, they nevertheless will be entitled to recover nominal damages.”
    • Case Brief: 1978
    • Petitioner: John D. Carey, et al.
    • Respondent: Jarius Piphus, et al.
    • Decided by: Burger Court

    Citation: 435 US 247 (1978)
    Argued: Dec 6, 1977
    Decided: Mar 21, 1978
    Granted Apr 18, 1977