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.
On January 23, 1974, during school hours, the school principal saw Piphus and another student standing outdoors on school property passing back and forth what the principal described as an irregularly shaped cigarette. The principal approached the students and noticed a strong odor of burning marijuana. The principal took the students to the school's disciplinary office and directed the assistant principal to impose the "usual" 20-day suspension for violation of the school rule against the use of drugs. The students filed suits against school officials in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois under 42 USCS 1983, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, together with actual and punitive damages. The District Court held that the students had been suspended without the procedural due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment and that they were entitled to declaratory relief, but that their claims for damages failed for complete lack of proof. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the students were entitled to recover substantial non-punitive damages even if the suspensions were justified, and even if they did not prove that any other actual injury was caused by the denial of procedural due process.
Were the students entitled to recover substantial nonpunitive damages?
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.