Carey v. Piphus

May school officials be sued for monetary damages if they violate a student’s right to due process? Is the violation of due process inherently harmful for the student (i.e., does it always lead to physical or emotional injury)? If damages are to be awarded, under what conditions should the damages be small (nominal) or large (substantial)? In Carey v. Piphus (1978), the Supreme Court found that school officials can be financially liable for violating a student’s procedural due process rights, but deprivation of such rights does not necessarily always lead to injury. According to the Court, absent proof of actual injury, school officials may only be liable for small damages, not to exceed one dollar.

Carey involved two students, one from a public elementary school and another from a public high school, who were removed from school for violations of disciplinary regulations; this action was taken without a hearing or other form of procedural due process. The students sued their school board, arguing that their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process had been violated and that they were entitled to monetary damages according to civil rights law.

Carey is often cited as setting a precedent specific to the financial liability of school officials for violation of students’ protected rights and to the amount of damages that can be awarded when such deprivation of rights occurs. The Court held that consistent with previous cases such as Wood v. Strickland (1975), school officials can be financially liable for deprivation of students’ protected rights, and the facts of this case clearly supported the notion that school officials did indeed violate students’ right to due process. Further, in acknowledging the critical importance of citizens observing and abiding by federally protected rights, the Court ruled that a violation of the due process rights of students per se is sufficient to entitle them to awards for damages.

At the same time, the Supreme Court decided that a violation of due process, absent actual injury, was not sufficient to award substantial damages. When due process has been violated in the context of student discipline, but without proof of actual injury resulting from this violation, the Court explained that students are entitled to only nominal damages. The Court stated that substantial damages may be awarded only when students are able to show that their removal from school was unlawful or unjustified. To this end, the Court was of the opinion that the students in this case were entitled to damages because their due process rights were violated, but if the students could not prove that their removal from school was unlawful or unjustified, they were entitled to only one dollar from school officials.

Carey has also been cited as setting a precedent for when substantial damages might be awarded in school disciplinary cases. Such criteria include proof that an injury occurred and that the injury was caused by the violation of due process specifically. It is the student’s responsibility to prove that such an injury occurred. The Supreme Court interpreted civil rights laws at the time as meaning that the intent of substantial damages awards is to compensate people for injuries sustained as a result of violation of protected rights, rather than the violation of rights per se. Thus, one requirement for substantial damages is proof of injury.

Further, the Court reasoned that injury must be due to the deprivation of due process and not to other justifiable factors. It is possible, for example, that when a student proves that he or she has suffered harm from being removed from school, such harm may be caused by two factors: the violation of due process or the lawful and justified removal from school. If a student suffers emotional distress because he or she was suspended or expelled for legitimate and justified reasons without procedural due process, substantial damages will not be awarded, because the cause of the distress was a lawful removal from school. Given the uncertainty of the cause of injury, the Court added that the student bringing suit bears the burden of proof of injury and the burden of proving that such injury is due to the violation of due process.

M. Karega Rausch

See also Due Process; Immunity; Wood v. Strickland

Legal Citations

  • Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247 (1978).
  • Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308 (1975), on remand, sub nom. Strickland v. Inlow, 519 F.2d 744 (8th Cir. 1975).