High Court to Mull HIV Disclosure Damages Suit
(CN) - A group of federal agencies convinced the Supreme Court on Monday to review a decision that gives an HIV-positive man the chance to claim damages from the government for sharing information about his medical status.
Stanmore Cawthorn Cooper sought damages from the Federal Aviation Administration, Social Security Administration and Department of Transportation in a federal complaint alleging that the agencies impermissibly exchanged information about Cooper's HIV status, without his consent, as part of a joint criminal investigation.
Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, now retired, had originally dismissed the complaint on summary judgment, finding that the Privacy Act allows recovery only for pecuniary damages. Cooper sought for the alleged offense and for the humiliation that the disclosure caused him.
FAA regulations used to refuse airman medical certificates to HIV positive pilots who were taking antiretroviral medications. When Cooper, a licensed pilot since 1964, was diagnosed with the virus in 1985, he began taking the medication, grounded himself and did not attempt to renew his medical certificate for nine years.
Beginning in 1994, however, Cooper obtained an FAA medical certificate without disclosing his status or medication intake, and he renewed that certificate without making the same disclosure over the next decade. He has explained that he withheld this information because he feared he would face discrimination as a gay man with HIV.
Cooper disclosed his status to Social Security in 1995, however, because his symptoms had worsened and needed long-term disability benefits.
In 2004, however, Cooper attracted the attention of the Department of Transportation and Social Security, which had launched a joint investigation focused on Northern California called Operation Safe Pilot to uncover efforts by medically unfit individuals to obtain FAA certifications to fly. The investigation was conducted through each agency's Office of Inspector General.
Since Cooper was FAA certified and receiving Social Security benefits, he became a person of interest for investigators, who looked through Cooper's medical file to answer their suspicions.
When confronted in 2005, Cooper confessed to deceiving the FAA. The agency revoked his pilot certificate, and the government charged him with three counts of lying to a federal agency. Cooper pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor the following year, earning him two years probation and a $1,000 fine.
In 2007, however, Cooper filed the lawsuit at hand. Walker dismissed the complaint, but the 9th Circuit revived it in February 2010, finding that the Privacy Act allows plaintiffs to claim damages both pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages.
Justice Elena Kagan, a former solicitor general, did not participate in the court's consideration or decision of the government's petition.