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Supreme Court finds Privacy Claim is Barred by Sovereign Immunity

Stanmore Cooper, a pilot, was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), at that time, did not issue medical certificates to HIV-positive pilots, Cooper grounded himself. In 1994, however, Cooper decided to apply to the FAA for a medical certificate so he could resume flying. Because his application did not disclose his HIV status, his medical certificate was approved.

In 1995, Cooper disclosed his HIV status to the Social Security Administration (SSA), and received long-term disability benefits from August 1995 to August 1996. By 1998, Cooper decided he wanted to resume flying, so he applied to the FAA for a new medical certificate. Cooper again did not disclose his HIV status and, again, was approved. In 2000, 2002, and 2004 Cooper applied and received medical certificates again without disclosing his HIV status.

In 2002, the Department of Transportation–the FAA’s parent agency–launched “Operation Safe Pilot” (OSP), a joint criminal investigation with the SSA to identify “medically unfit” individuals who had improperly obtained FAA medical certifications to fly. Cooper’s HIV status was revealed when the SSA gave the FAA information on his long-term disability benefits. The FAA revoked Cooper’s pilot certificate. Subsequently, Cooper was indicted on three counts of making false statements to a government agency. Cooper received two years of probation and was fined $1 thousand when he pled guilty to one count of making and delivering a false official writing.

Cooper then sued the FAA, SSA, and Transportation Department alleging that they violated the Privacy Act and their violation caused him mental anguish and severe emotional distress. Cooper did not allege their disclosures caused him any economic loss.

The Privacy Act allows recovery for “actual damages.” The district court interpreted “actual damages” to apply only to damages for economic loss. Cooper did not allege any damages for economic loss therefore Cooper could only recover damages for mental and emotional distress if the FAA, SSA, and Transportation Department waived their right to immunity. None of the government entities had consented to do so, therefore the district court held for the government.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “actual damages” in the Privacy Act included damages for economic loss as well as for mental and emotional distress. Therefore, the government’s waiver was expressed through the Privacy Act. The government appealed to the Supreme Court who held the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals interpretation of “actual damages” was incorrect.

The Supreme Court reasoned that though the term “actual damages” had been given different constructions when used in the context of various different statutes, without an express statutory definition it is ambiguous. “Actual damages” under the Privacy Act did not specifically and expressly include damages for mental and emotional distress. Therefore, the doctrine of sovereign immunity protected the three government entities from any tort liability since disclosing Cooper’s HIV status was done in the act of performing their official duties.

The Las Vegas law office of Lagomarsino Law did not represent anyone involved in the above-referenced case. The commentary is for educational and commentary purposes only. If you would like to be represented by a Nevada attorney, contact our office for a free confidential case review and receive a response within hours. Call Toll Free 866-414-0400.