In a 5-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Privacy Act of 1974 does not authorize suits for mental or emotional distress when the government violates the Act.
In FAA v. Cooper, Cooper lost his pilot license after the FAA was told by the Social Security Administration that he had received disability benefits because of an illness. The records were disclosed to the FAA as part of an “Operation Safe Pilot” probe targeting medically unfit pilots. At the time Cooper was receiving benefits, the FAA did not give licenses to anyone taking medication for the AIDS virus.
Cooper’s suit did not allege economic harm in his complaint. He did however sue for “humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, fear of social ostracism, and other severe emotional distress.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Alito stated that the Privacy Act of 1974 provides for “actual damages” if the United States intentionally or willfully violates the law. However, the term “actual damages” varies based on the statute being interpreted, and under the Privacy Act damages can only be recovered for pecuniary loss.
In a vigorous dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion “cripples the Act’s core purpose of redressing and deterring violations of privacy interests.” She criticized the majority’s interpretation of actual damages, as the majority conceded that its interpretation was not compelled by the plain text of the Act nor required “by any other traditional tool of statutory interpretation.”
You can read the full opinion here.
Gina M. Spada is an attorney practicing in Chicago and the surrounding counties handling privacy related matters for both individuals and businesses. You can learn more about her here: www.gspadalaw.com.