The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a California pilot who tried to hide that he was HIV-positive cannot sue for emotional distress after two federal agencies shared the man's medical information.
In a 5-3 opinion, the court’s conservative majority upheld the federal government’s immunity from liability for a person who claims mental anguish or emotional distress, but who suffers no damage, such as loss of income.
The decision reverses a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that had struck down a ruling by a lower court in San Francisco.
“We hold that the Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress,” said Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote for the majority including Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. “Accordingly, the act does not waive the federal government's sovereign immunity from liability for such harms.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented, arguing the ruling “cripples” the 1974 Privacy Act’s “core purpose of redressing and deterring violations of privacy interests,” as Sotomayor wrote for the dissenters. Justice Elena Kagan was not involved in the decision because she had worked on the case while solicitor general.
The case involves Stanmore Cawthon Cooper, a private pilot who is HIV-positive. In the past, the Federal Aviation Administration denied pilot credentials to those who were HIV-positive. The policy was later changed.
Copper disclosed his medical status to the Social Security Administration when he was granted disability benefits in 1995, but kept it secret from the FAA when he reapplied for his pilot’s license a year earlier. He then renewed his license every two years without telling the FAA of his HIV status.
As part of a 2002 criminal investigation, the Social Security Administration shared information with the FAA about the medical records of about 45,000 residents of Northern California who had applied for pilot licenses. The FAA was trying to find out if pilots were using some doctors to certify their flight status while using other doctors to support personal injury claims.
Cooper was identified as a pilot who also was receiving disability benefits. He admitted withholding his HIV condition from the FAA on applications and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false statement and paid a $1,000 fine.
In 2007, Cooper sued the government for violating the Privacy Act after learning that his records were shared without his consent. The Privacy Act permits claims for “actual damages,” but lower courts have split for decades over how broadly the term should be interpreted. The question is whether the claim should be limited to monetary losses or can include mental distress.
The government argued that to broaden damages to include mental distress would open it up to more claims than was intended by Congress when it approved the Privacy Act. Cooper’s side countered that limiting the definition of damages would have unforeseen implications, such as making it easier for the government to silence whistle-blowers by revealing embarrassing disclosures.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco ruled against Cooper and said the law did not include damages for emotional distress. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and ruled last year that emotional damages, if proved, were included.