(CN) – The government should not face a damages claim for revealing a pilot as HIV-positive, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, finding that humiliation is not recoverable.
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 his HIV status, without his consent, as part of a joint criminal investigation.
FAA regulations previously barred HIV-positive pilots who were taking antiretroviral medications from receiving airman medical certificates. 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 he needed long-term disability benefits.
In 2004, the Department of Transportation and Social Security launched a joint investigation called Operation Safe Pilot to uncover efforts by medically unfit individuals in Northern California to obtain FAA certifications.
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 filed suit after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor the following year, earning him two years probation and a $1,000 fine.
Though Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker found that the government had violated the Privacy Act, and had possibly done so willfully, he dismissed the complaint on summary judgment. The now retired jurist said that the Privacy Act allows recovery only for an economic loss, but that Cooper had alleged only mental and emotional harm.
The 9th Circuit revived the case in February 2010, however, finding that the Privacy Act allows plaintiffs to claim both pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages.
A five-justice majority of the Supreme Court concluded otherwise Wednesday.
“We do not claim that the contrary reading of the statute accepted by the Court of Appeals and advanced now by respondent is inconceivable,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. “But because the Privacy Act waives the federal government’s sovereign immunity, the question we must answer is whether it is plausible to read the statute, as the government does, to authorize only damages for economic loss. 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 dissent says that Wednesday’s holding “cripples the act’s core purpose of redressing and deterring violations of privacy interests.”
“The canon simply cannot bear the weight the majority ascribes it,” according to the opinion authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
“After today, no matter how debilitating and substantial the resulting mental anguish, an individual harmed bya federal agency’s intentional or willful violation of the Privacy Act will be left without a remedy unless he or she is able to prove pecuniary harm,” Sotomayor concluded. “That is not the result Congress intended when it enacted an act with the express purpose of safeguarding individual privacy against government invasion. And it is not a result remotely suggested by anything in the text, structure, or history of the act.”
Justice Elena Kagan, a former solicitor general, did not participate in the court’s consideration or decision of the government’s petition.
Cooper expressed his disappointment in a statement through his attorneys’ spokesmen at NewsPros.
“I find it discouraging that a majority of the court sided with the government,” Cooper said. “I am eternally grateful to Reed Smith for taking on this pro bono case and for advancing it all the way to the Supreme Court.”