U.S. High Court Limits Privacy Act Suits to Actual Economic Harm

The U.S. Supreme Court, rejecting a claim by a California pilot who sought to conceal that he was HIV-positive, ruled that the government can be sued only for financial harm from violations of the federal Privacy Act.

In a 5-3 decision today, the justices said Stanmore Cooper couldn’t seek damages for mental or emotional distress.

Federal law “limits the government’s Privacy Act liability to harm that can be substantiated by proof of tangible economic loss,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote.

Cooper had sought damages for “humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, fear of social ostracism and other severe emotional distress” after the Social Security Administration shared information about his medical condition with the Federal Aviation Administration. HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, causes AIDS.

The FAA revoked Cooper’s private pilot’s license on grounds that he had lied on license applications that required him to disclose health issues and medications he was taking. Cooper pleaded guilty to one count of providing false information and was fined $1,000. The FAA subsequently reissued Cooper’s pilot license after a review of his medical records.

Cooper, who had applied for long-term disability benefits, sued, saying the government violated the Privacy Act when the Social Security Administration compared disability claims with FAA pilot records in a program designed to identify pilots who may have been medically unfit.

Sotomayor Dissent

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissenting opinion, said “common sense” dictates that mental and emotional distress are “the primary, and often only, damages sustained as a result of an invasion of privacy.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined Alito’s majority opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer agreed with Sotomayor. Justice Elena Kagan, who represented the federal government at the Supreme Court as solicitor general before becoming a justice, didn’t participate in the decision.

The case is Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper, 10-1024.

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