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Justices hold Privacy Act doesn’t cover mental, emotional damages

By: CORREY E STEPHENSON//March 29, 2012//

Justices hold Privacy Act doesn’t cover mental, emotional damages

By: CORREY E STEPHENSON//March 29, 2012//

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By Correy Stephenson
Dolan Media Newswires

The Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize damages for mental or emotional distress and therefore, the Government has not waived sovereign immunity for such claims, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

In the case before the Court, a pilot intentionally failed to disclose his HIV status to the Federal Aviation Administration as required to receive a medical certificate to operate aircraft. He later disclosed his condition to the Social Security Administration in order to receive long-term disability benefits.

After the SSA disclosed his medical records to the FAA, the pilot’s license was revoked and he was charged with submitting false reports to a federal agency.

He filed suit under the Privacy Act, alleging that the disclosure of his medical records resulted in mental and emotional distress.

But a U.S. District Court granted summary judgment for the agencies, holding that the pilot’s claimed injuries were not compensable under the Act, which only allows recovery for “actual damages.” The 9th Circuit reversed.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and heard oral argument in November.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said the scope of the government’s waiver to be sued must be construed in favor of the sovereign, reversing the 9th Circuit.

“Actual damages” has been interpreted by courts to include mental and emotional distress, Alito acknowledged, but it has also been construed more narrowly to authorize damages only for pecuniary harm.

“When waiving the Government’s sovereign immunity, Congress must speak unequivocally. Here, we conclude that it did not. As a consequence, we adopt an interpretation of ‘actual damages’ limited to proven pecuniary or economic harm. To do otherwise would expand the scope of Congress’ sovereign immunity waiver beyond what the statutory text clearly requires,” the Court said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored a dissent which was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Justice Elena Kagan took no part in consideration of the case.

U.S. Supreme Court. Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper, No. 10-1024.


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