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Pilot not entitled to noneconomic damages after HIV status disclosed

The U.S. Supreme Court says federal law provides only for monetary damages after the government violates a person’s medical privacy.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted April 16, 2012

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A pilot whose HIV-positive status was improperly shared among federal agencies cannot sue the government for emotional distress damages, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. In its March 28 opinion, the court said although the government violated the federal Privacy Act when it disclosed the man’s diagnosis, the 1974 law allows only for economic damages.

The decision is a setback for people whose medical privacy is violated by the government, said David Colapinto, an attorney for the National Whistleblowers Center, which advocates protecting disclosure of waste, fraud and abuse. The center submitted a court brief in support of the pilot.

“It eliminates the most important remedy available to Privacy Act victims,” he said. “In other words, if the government were to release Privacy Act-protected materials, the likelihood is the [plaintiffs] will only be able to recover a small amount of damages, if any.”

The case stems from a joint investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Social Security Administration in 2002 to locate pilots hiding medical conditions from the FAA. The agencies compared pilots’ license information with people who applied for Social Security benefits. During the process, investigators identified California pilot Stanmore Cooper, who failed to disclose his HIV diagnosis when renewing his license, according to court records.

In 2007, Cooper sued the federal government, alleging that it intentionally violated the Privacy Act by sharing his records with other agencies. He said he experienced humiliation, mental anguish and fear of social ostracism because of the disclosure.

A lower court found in favor of the government, but an appeals court reversed the decision. In its 5-to-3 opinion, the Supreme Court said the Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize damages for emotional distress and thus, does not waive the government’s immunity from liability for such harms.

“In defamation and privacy cases, the affront to the plaintiff’s dignity and the emotional harm done are called ‘general damages,’ to distinguish them from proof of actual economic harm, which is called ‘special damages,’?” the high court said. “Because Congress removed general damages from the Act’s remedial provision, it is reasonable to infer that Congress foreclosed recovery for nonpecuniary harm, even if such harm can be proved.”

At this article’s deadline, the FAA had not returned messages seeking comment. An attorney for Cooper also had not returned messages.

The ruling negatively impacts whistle-blowers, including doctors who report violations such as health care fraud, Colapinto said. If the government were to leak their privacy information, whistle-blowers would have little remedy, he said.

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External links

Federal Aviation Administration v. Stanmore Cawthon Cooper, U.S. Supreme Court, March 28 (link)

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