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SCOTUS Skepticism: Emotional Distress Warrants Actual Damages?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974 to establish protocols to govern the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of information maintained in federal agency records. The Act includes a private cause of action for violations

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in FAA v. Cooper, a dispute between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a pilot who claims that he suffered emotional distress as a result of a Privacy Act violation.

So how do we quantify emotional harm? And can a plaintiff recover actual damages for emotional harm under the Act?

Stanmore Cooper obtained a private pilot certificate in 1964. Federal law requires pilots to maintain a valid pilot certificate and a valid airman medical certificate to keep flying.

Cooper was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. At that time, the FAA did not issue medical certificates to individuals with HIV who were taking antiretroviral medications. Cooper knew he would not qualify for a renewal of his medical certificate so he stopped flying, and chose not to renew his medical certificate.

In 1994, he had a change of heart. Cooper applied for, and received, a medical certificate without disclosing that he was HIV positive and taking antiretroviral medication. In 1995, Cooper disclosed his HIV status to the Social Security Administration when he applied for long-term disability benefits.

In 2002, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the OIG for SSA collaborated to investigate pilots who simultaneously received medical certifications and disability benefits. The investigation turned up 45,000 pilots, including Cooper.

In 2005, Cooper confessed that he intentionally withheld information about his medical condition from the FAA. Cooper's pilot certificate was revoked.

Cooper claimed he chose didn't disclose the information because of the "social stigma" associated with HIV and his sexual orientation. Because he feared discrimination, only a few close family and friends knew about his sexual orientation or HIV-positive status.

Cooper sued, claiming the unauthorized exchange of information between DOT and SSA caused him humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional distress.

When the case reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court ruled that Congress "clearly intended that when a federal agency intentionally or willfully fails to uphold its record-keeping obligations under the Act, and that failure proximately causes an adverse effect on the plaintiff, the plaintiff is entitled to recover for both pecuniary and non-pecuniary injuries."

Based on Wednesday's oral arguments, the Supreme Court seems to disagree.

While Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor both expressed support for the idea that emotional damages like nervousness, distress, and anxiety should qualify as actual damages, the remaining six justices were skeptical. (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case, so only eight justices are participating in this decision.)

The Court expressed similarly expressed skepticism regarding non-pecuniary damages on Monday in First American Financial Corporation v. Edwards, a Real Estate and Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) based claim.

The Supreme Court should issue an opinion in FAA v. Cooper by June 2012.

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