Legal Memorandum: Award of Constitutional Damages in DC

Issue: In the District of Columbia, when can a verdict form cause a jury to award ‘Constitutional’ damages?

Area of Law: Constitutional Law, Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Constitutional damages; Jury award; Constitutional tort claims
Jurisdiction: District of Columbia
Cited Cases: 738 F.Supp. 1041; 732 F.Supp. 176; 477 U.S. 299
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 04/01/2001

On constitutional tort claims, a plaintiff is allowed compensation for nonpecuniary damage such as mental anguish.  See, e.g., Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 263-64, 264 n.20 (1978); Jones v. Rivers, 732 F.Supp. 176, 178 (D.D.C. 1990); Covington v. Beaumont Indep. School Dist., 738 F.Supp. 1041, 1043 (E.D. Tex. 1990).  The court in Carey sought only to preclude juries from awarding money damages where the plaintiff had sustained no actual injuries:  "[S]ubstantial damages should be awarded only to compensate actual injury."  435 U.S. at 266.*FN1 

The basic proposition of law in Carey was that commission of a constitutional tort should result in fair compensation for injuries caused thereby. In Carey this "principle of compensation" meant only that absent proof of injury no compensating damages could be awarded.  Id. at 262.  In fact, the defendants conceded in Carey that "persons in [plaintiffs’] position might well recover damages for mental and emotional distress caused by the denial of procedural due process."  Id.  The problem in Carey was that plaintiffs had failed to prove they sustained any actual injuries

In Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299 (1986), the trial court had properly instructed the jury on compensatory and punitive damages, including damages in the nature of "mental anguish or emotional distress that you find the Plaintiff to have suffered as a result of conduct by the Defendants depriving him of […]

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