GSA Settles Privacy Act Lawsuit
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
In Brunotte v. Tangherlini, Civil Action No. 08-0587 (D.C.), the parties settled a Privacy Act case prior to trial. This case, in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, involved allegations that employees of the General Services Administration and its Office of Inspector General committed violations of the Privacy Act in an apparent attempt to interfere with a GSA employee starting a new job at the Government Printing Office. Under the settlement agreement, the government will pay $585,000 to resolve the claims.
The Brunotte case involved several allegations of violations of the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. §552a. This statute restricts how government agencies can collect, retain and disseminate information regarding individuals, including federal employees, and gives individuals the ability to sue the government in the cases where these restrictions are violated. Depending on the nature of the violation, remedies available can include money damages where “actual damages” have occurred (which includes relief such as back pay and out-of-pocket expenses, but not emotional pain-and-suffering damages or the like), orders modifying the government records in question and reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and costs. In addition, some of the most serious violations of the Privacy Act are subject to criminal penalties.
In the Brunotte case, two of Brunotte’s claims were set for trial after the GSA’s attempts to have her claims dismissed on summary judgment were denied. The first claim alleged that GSA violated the Privacy Act when an agent of the GSA OIG contacted an agent of the GPO OIG to provide false negative information concerning Brunotte. The second claim alleged that GSA violated the Privacy Act by collecting information concerning Brunotte’s application to work at GPO without trying to get the information from Ms. Brunotte herself, as the Privacy Act requires. Brunotte claimed that, as a result of these violations, GPO rescinded its job offer to her.
Under the January 29, 2013, settlement agreement, the government will pay $400,000 to Brunotte, plus an additional $185,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. Brunotte was represented by Passman and Kaplan attorneys Founding Principal Joseph V. Kaplan and Senior Associate Andrew J. Perlmutter.
This case serves as a reminder that government agencies must be careful in protecting private information concerning individuals, even if the individuals are federal employees The Privacy Act can carry steep consequences when those restrictions are violated.