Fri, Mar 30, 2012
Social Security Office Improperly Shared Man's HIV Status With The FAA
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday handed down a ruling saying the federal government cannot be sued for emotional distress even when it violates the privacy act.
The case involves San Francisco resident Stanmore Cooper, who divulged his HIV status to the Social Security Office to receive medical benefits, but did not tell the doctor who examined him for his FAA medical certificate in 1998 and 2004. His name turned up in an investigation by the FAA looking for pilots who falsified medical information. Cooper's name was one of 45,000 Northern California residents who had applied for pilot certificates turned over to the FAA by the Social Security Administration. Cooper later admitted he had withheld the information, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and paid a $1,000 fine.
The Washington Post reports that Cooper sued the federal government in 2007, claiming emotional distress for their violation of the Privacy Act. He lost his first case, but as it worked its way through the process, an appeals court said that emotional distress counts as "actual damages" for issues caused by disclosing his HIV status.
The SCOTUS, however, disagreed. Writing for the 5-3 majority on the case, Justice Samuel Alito said “We hold that the Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress. Accordingly, the act does not waive the federal government’s sovereign immunity from liability for such harms.”
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