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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Bars HIV-Positive Pilot’s Suit for Emotional Distress over Records Disclosure

Posted Mar 28, 2012 11:13 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Corrected: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the case of an HIV-positive pilot that a Watergate-era privacy law does not authorize suits for mental or emotional distress when the government violates its provisions.

The court ruled against plaintiff Stanmore Cooper in a 5-3 opinion (PDF). Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision.

Cooper lost his pilot license after the Social Security Administration revealed to the Federal Aviation Administration that he had received disability benefits for a year because of his illness. The FAA had obtained the records as part of an “Operation Safe Pilot” probe to identify medically unfit individuals. At the time, the FAA did not give licenses to anyone taking medication for the AIDS virus.

Cooper sued for “humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, fear of social ostracism, and other severe emotional distress,” but he did not allege economic harm.

The Privacy Act of 1974 says the United States may be liable for “actual damages” in cases of intentional or willful violations of the law, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in the majority opinion.

Alito acknowledged that the term “actual damages” has a “chameleon-like quality” that varies based on the statute being interpreted, but said Congress must speak unequivocally when waiving the government’s sovereign immunity.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The majority decision, Sotomayor wrote, “cripples the act’s core purpose of redressing and deterring violations of privacy interests.”

The case is FAA v. Cooper.

Updated at 3:19 p.m. to correct the tally of the opinion to 5-3.

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