RESPONDENT: Stanmore Cooper
LOCATION: US Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration
DOCKET NO.: 10-1024
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 566 US (2012)
GRANTED: Jun 20, 2011
ARGUED: Nov 30, 2011
DECIDED: Mar 28, 2012
Eric J. Feigin - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioners
Raymond A. Cardozo - for the respondent
Facts of the case
In 2006, pilot Stanmore Cooper disclosed that he was HIV-positive to Social Security officials in order to receive medical benefits but withheld his status from the Federal Aviation Administration. But the Social Security Administration then turned over his medical records to the FAA, which revoked his license. Cooper filed suit against the agency for emotional distress for mishandling his medical records. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the exchange of records was improper and that Cooper has standing to sue.
Does the Privacy Act's "actual damages" provision cover mental and emotional distress?
Media for FAA v. CooperAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 30, 2011 in FAA v. Cooper
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 28, 2012 in FAA v. Cooper
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Alito has our opinion this morning in case 10-1024, FAA versus Cooper.
Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:
The question in this case is whether a plaintiff, who sues the Federal Government under the Privacy Act, may recover damages for nonpecuniary injuries.
Respondent is a pilot who intentionally withheld from the Federal Aviation Administration information about his HIV diagnosis in order to procure a medical certificate at a time when the agency did not issue medial certificates to pilots with HIV.
Respondent's failure to report his condition was discovered in the course a joint criminal investigation by the Department of Transportation, which is the FAA's current agency, and the Social Security Administration.
When the investigation revealed that respondent had obtained Social Security disability benefits, but had nevertheless renewed his medical certificate, he admitted that he had deliberately failed to disclose information about his condition to the FAA.
He eventually pleaded guilty to making and delivering a false official writing.
He then brought this suit against the agencies involved in the investigation.
He claims that the disclosure of his confidential medical information to the Department of Transportation violated the Privacy Act, causing him mental and emotional distress.
The Privacy Act authorizes aggrieved individuals to recover "actual damages" from the Government for intentional or willful violation, but the Acts does not define actual damages.
Relying on the sovereign immunity canon which holds that the scope of sovereign immunity waivers must be restrictly construed in the Government's favor, the District Court held that the term "actual damages" is facially ambiguous and that as a result, respondent could not recover for his alleged nonpecuniary harm.
The Ninth Circuit reversed, however, holding that in the context of the Privacy Act the meaning of "actual damages" is clear and that it includes mental and emotional distress.
For reasons stated in our opinion, we hold that the Privacy Act does not unmistakably authorize damages for mental and emotional distress.
We are most persuaded by what Congress did not authorize to be recovered for Privacy Act violations.
Congress deliberately excluded general damages from the Act.
In common law defamation and privacy cases, general damages compensate for nonpecuniary harm, including mental and emotional distress and need not be proved.
The only other category of compensatory damages in those common law torts is special damages which are limited to actual pecuniary loss and must be proved.
Because Congress refused to authorize general damages, we believe that it is reasonable to infer that Congress intended the term "actual damages" under the Privacy Act to mean special damages.
Respondent's contrary reading of the Act is not unreasonable, but because Congress did not speak unequivocally, the sovereign immunity can and dictates that we adopt an interpretation of actual damages limited to proven pecuniary loss.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is therefore reversed and the case is remanded.
Justice Sotomayor has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer have joined.
Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision in this case.