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Damages for Privacy Act Violations

Federal Legal Corner: Damages for Privacy Act Violations

In Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper, No. 10-1024, 566 U.S. __ (2012), the United States Supreme Court faced the question of whether an individual whose rights under the Privacy Act are violated is entitled to damages for mental or emotional distress. Since the Privacy Act allows for recovery of “actual damages,” this case called upon the court to decide if emotional distress damages fall within the definition of “actual damages.” The court in a 5-3 decision held that emotional distress damages are not available as “actual damages” under the Privacy Act.

In this case, Cooper, a licensed pilot, failed to disclose his HIV diagnosis to the FAA at a time when the FAA did not issue medical certificates to persons with HIV. In 1994, however, he applied for and received a certificate, but he did so without disclosing his HIV status or his medication. He renewed his certificate in 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004, each time intentionally withholding information about his condition.

When Cooper’s health deteriorated in 1995, he applied for long-term disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. To substantiate his claim, Cooper disclosed his HIV status to the Social Security Administration (SSA) which awarded him benefits. The Department of Transportation, the FAA’s parent agency, launched a joint criminal investigation with the SSA, known as “Operation Safe Pilot,” to identify medically unfit individuals who had obtained FAA certifications to fly. The DoT gave the SSA a list of names and other identifying information of 45,000 licensed pilots in northern California. The SSA then compared the list with its own records of benefit recipients and compiled a spreadsheet, which it gave to the DoT. After reviewing Cooper’s FAA medical file and his SSA disability file, FAA flight surgeons determined in 2005 that the FAA would not have issued a medical certificate to Cooper had it known his true medical condition. Because of these fraudulent omissions, the FAA revoked Cooper’s pilot certificate and he was indicted on three counts of making false statements to a government agency, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §1001. Cooper ultimately pleaded guilty.

Claiming that the FAA, DoT, and SSA violated the Privacy Act by sharing his records with one another, Cooper filed suit in a United States District Court alleging that the unlawful disclosure to the DoT of his confidential medical information, including his HIV status, had caused him “humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, fear of social ostracism and other severe emotional distress.” The court held that Cooper’s rights under the Privacy Act were in fact violated, but found that Cooper could not recover damages because he had only asserted that he suffered emotional distress damages and not any actual monetary damages. A United States Court of Appeals reversed this finding of the district court and held that emotional distress damages did meet the definition of “actual damages” under the Privacy Act. The Supreme Court reversed.

The Supreme Court held that the Privacy Act did not unequivocally authorize damages for mental or emotional distress. Because a waiver of “sovereign immunity” – the legal doctrine that the government can only be sued to the extent it consents to be sued – must be unequivocally expressed in the language of the statute, any ambiguity must be construed in favor of the government’s immunity.

In reviewing the term “actual damages” in the Privacy Act, the court found this term to be ambiguous. The court noted that although the term “actual damages” is sometimes understood in the law to include nonpecuniary harm such as emotional distress, it has also been construed more narrowly to refer only to monetary harm. Because of the different interpretations given to the term, the court decided that determining its meaning under the Privacy Act required an examination of the context of the type of harm remedied in a suit claiming a Privacy Act violation.

The Supreme Court analogized the interests sought to be protected under the Privacy Act to those protected by defamation and privacy lawsuits. The court found that under such lawsuits, damages are typically limited to actual monetary damages which must be specifically pleaded and proved. The court further found that Congress’s failure to provide recovery for “general damages” – which would have included emotional distress damages – indicates Congress’s intent to decline to authorize recovery for emotional distress damages. While finding that the court of appeals’ interpretation of the Privacy Act and the interpretation that Cooper urged was not inconceivable, the court held that because any ambiguity must be found against a waiver of sovereign immunity, that recovery of emotional distress damages would not be permitted.

Although the court held that emotional distress damages are not recoverable under the Privacy Act, the court certainly seemed to intimate that actual monetary damages associated with emotional distress – such as the cost for psychiatric and/or psychological therapy and prescription medications – would meet the definition of actual damages and thus be recoverable.