The Supreme Court made it more difficult yesterday for people to recover large damage awards for violations of their constitutional rights.
In a unanimous ruling, the court found that juries may not award damages to civil rights plaintiffs based on their perception of "the abstract value of a constitutional right" that has been infringed.
Instead, the court said in an opinion by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., damages must be "grounded in determinations of plaintiffs' actual losses" resulting from the unconstitutional actions.
George Kannar, national staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the court brief urging the court to uphold the damage award in the case, termed the decision "an unfortunate step" that could greatly limit the deterrent effect of civil rights suits.
The case, Memphis (Mich.) Community School District v. Stachura, involved a seventh-grade teacher who was suspended with pay after parents complained that he used sexually explicit material in teaching human reproduction.
The teacher, Edward Stachura, sued the school district and others alleging that the suspension violated his First Amendment right to academic freedom and his due-process rights. Stachura, who was reinstated after filing suit, was awarded $266,750 in compensatory damages and $36,000 in punitive damages.
The issue before the high court was whether the trial judge went too far in instructing the jury that, in awarding Stachura damages for violation of his constitutional rights, it could "consider the importance of the right in our system of government, the role which this right has played in the history of our republic, and the significance of the right in the context" of Stachura's activities.
Powell found those instructions "impermissible" because they "focus, not on compensation for provable injury, but on the jury's subjective perception of the importance of constitutional rights as an abstract matter."
If such assessments were allowed, Powell said, "juries would be free to award arbitrary amounts without any evidentiary basis, or to use their unbounded discretion to punish unpopular defendants."
In a concurring opinion, four justices said they were concerned that "certain portions of the court's opinion can be read to suggest that damages in civil rights cases are necessarily limited to 'out-of-pocket loss,' 'other monetary harms,' " and " 'such injuries as impairment of reputation . . . personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering.' "
The concurring justices said they believed "the violation of a constitutional right, in proper cases, may itself constitute a compensable injury." Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the concurring opinion, joined by Justices Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan Jr. and John Paul Stevens.
In other action, the court rebuffed Solicitor General Charles Fried's suggestion that it overrule a 1977 holding that an organization has standing to sue on behalf of its members in certain cases. Yesterday's case involved a suit by the auto workers union challenging, on behalf of its members, the Labor Department's interpretation of a law benefiting workers laid off because of competition from imports.
The court, in International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America v. Brock, said it had "absolutely no reason to doubt the ability of the UAW to proceed here on behalf of its aggrieved members" and said the government "has fallen far short of meeting the heavy burden of persuading us to abandon settled principles of associational standing."