FAA v. Cooper

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Tort Law
  • Date Filed: March 28, 2012
  • Case #: 10-1024
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Alito, J., joined by Roberts, C.J., Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ. Sotomayor J., dissented, joined by Breyer and Ginsburg JJ. Kagan, J., took no part in the decision.
  • Full Text Opinion

The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. §552a(g)(4)(A), does not abrogate sovereign immunity for damages arising from emotional and mental distress.

Respondent, who was HIV positive, applied to renew his private pilot’s medical certificate, but did not disclose his condition. Respondent subsequently applied for SSA disability benefits based on his HIV diagnosis. Several years later, the DOT and the SSA initiated a joint investigation to identify pilots who were unfit to fly. Respondent's name was flagged and he was criminally charged with making false statements to a Government agency. Respondent pled guilty and was fined, placed on probation and had his license revoked. Respondent filed suit alleging that the FAA, DOT, and SSA “willfully or intentionally” violated the Privacy Act of 1974 by sharing his records with one another causing him emotional and mental distress.

Under the Act, Plaintiff is entitled to “an amount equal to the sum of actual damages sustained by the individual”. Because Plaintiff only claimed emotional damages, the district court ruled against Plaintiff finding that he had suffered no actual damages under the Act. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and held that for purposes of the Privacy Act, the term "actual damages" included emotional and mental distress. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that the Privacy Act does not “authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress” nor does it “waive the Federal Government’s sovereign immunity from liability for such harms” because the term “actual damages” is ambiguous and any ambiguity in the wording of a statute must be found in favor of immunity. In Doe v. Chao the Court found that the Privacy Act provisions paralleled the torts of libel and slander in which the plaintiff must prove "special damages" which are limited to actual pecuniary loss, thus “Privacy Act victims, like victims of libel per quod or slander, are barred from any recovery unless they can first show actual—that is, pecuniary or material—harm.”

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