Doe v. Chao

RESPONDENT:Elaine L. Chao, Secretary of Labor
LOCATION:Pennsylvania General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 02-1377
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 540 US 614 (2004)
GRANTED: Jun 27, 2003
ARGUED: Dec 03, 2003
DECIDED: Feb 24, 2004

David K. Colapinto – for Linda R
Jack William Campbell IV – argued the cause for Petitioner
Jack W. Campbell IV – argued the cause for petitioner
Michael D. Kohn – for Linda R
Malcolm L. Stewart – argued the cause for Respondent
Stephen M. Kohn – for Linda R

Facts of the case

Seven coal miners sued the Department of Labor, claiming that the department had violated the federal Privacy Act and the right to privacy found in the federal Constitution by releasing their social security numbers (SSNs). The Privacy Act stated that any “person entitled to recovery” in a suit against the government for a violation of privacy would be awarded “actual damages sustained by the individual… but in no case… [would the damages awarded be] less than the sum of $1000” and attorney fees.

The miners argued that all they needed to prove in order to receive the $1000 minimum award was that the government had violated their privacy by releasing their SSNs; they did not need to prove that they had suffered actual damages. They maintained that the inclusion of “actual damages” in the act was only intended to limit the size of judgments awarded against the government, not to require proof of actual damage. The government argued that the act required the miners to prove that they had been harmed by the government’s violation of their privacy.

The district court ruled in favor of the government. A divided Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirmed.


Does the federal Privacy Act require that people prove they suffered “actual damage” stemming from the government’s violation of their privacy rights in order to win damages in a suit against the government?

Media for Doe v. Chao

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 03, 2003 in Doe v. Chao

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 24, 2004 in Doe v. Chao

David H. Souter:

The second of the two cases that I have to announce this morning is 02-1377 Doe v. Chao.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Petitioner Buck Doe applied to the office of the Workers’ Compensation Programs of the Department of Labor for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act.

The agency then used Doe’s Social Security number to identify his claim and official documents, including a multi-caption hearing that was sent to a group of claimants there, employers and lawyers.

The District Court found that this disclosure of Doe’s Social Security number violated the Federal Privacy Act, and awarded Doe a $1000, the minimum statutory damages award.

The Fourth Circuit reversed holding that because Doe had not suffered any actual damages.

The minimum statutory award was unavailable.

The Fourth Circuit thus created a conflict among the Circuits and we reviewed the case to resolve it.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk of Court, we affirm the Fourth Circuit.

Litigants are not eligible for the $1,000 minimum under the Privacy Act, unless they prove that they suffered some actual damages from an agency’s statutory violation.

The Civil Remedy Section of the Privacy Act, innumerate the penalties available for a violation like the one at issue here.

It provides that if a plaintiff can show that the agency’s violation was intentional or willful, then in the verge of the statute, the United State shall be liable for actual damages sustained by the individual, but in case now case shall a person entitled to recovery, receive less than the sum of a $1,000.

The “straightforward textual analysis” demonstrates that this minimum guarantee goes only to victims who prove some actual damages, and hence are entitled to recovery.

Although, Doe sees the guarantee as a form of what is known at common law as general damages for a dignitary tort, his reading is belied by a drafting history which shows that Congress cut a provision from an earlier bill that would have explicitly authorized general damages.

Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Breyer joined and Justice Breyer has also filed a separate dissent.