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High court sides with government in Privacy Act case

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    News Media Update         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information    

High court sides with government in Privacy Act case

  • The U.S. Supreme Court found the U.S. Department of Labor is not liable for damages under the federal Privacy Act because a plaintiff could not prove he suffered any actual harm.

Feb. 25, 2004 — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a plaintiff must prove actual damages caused by the government’s release of his personal information to recover an award under the federal Privacy Act.

The high court’s 6-3 ruling upheld a split-panel decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.). This was the first Privacy Act case the Supreme Court has ever ruled on.

The government’s victory was applauded by First Amendment and freedom of information advocates, who said punitive awards would discourage future government disclosure of documents.

“The Court has made it more difficult to qualify for damages under the Privacy Act,” said Ronald Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, located in Arlington, Va. “More information stands to be made public and not be subject to penalty under the Privacy Act.”

The suit was brought against the U.S. Department of Labor by a Virginia man known by the pseudonym Buck Doe. In handling disability claims for black lung disease, the department used miners’ social security numbers as identifiers and mistakenly published the information in research reports.

Doe, along with six other claimants, sued the department. A U.S. district court judge threw out the six other claimants’ suits because they failed to allege any harm, but awarded Doe the statutory minimum damages of $1,000 because he claimed to be “greatly concerned and worried” and “torn . . . all to pieces” over the release of his social security number.

Under the plain language of the Privacy Act of 1974, however, the minimum award guarantees go only to victims who prove “actual damage,” the Supreme Court held.

“The ‘entitle[ment] to recovery’ necessary to qualify for the $1,000 minimum is not shown merely by an intentional or willful violation of the act producing some adverse effect,” Justice David Souter wrote for the majority. “The statute guarantees $1,000 only to plaintiffs who have suffered some actual damages.”

Justices Steven Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Paul Stevens dissented, arguing that the Court failed to address the district court’s ruling, and that Doe suffered emotional harm and was therefore entitled to the $1,000 minimum.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, urging the Court to rely on the language of the Privacy Act, which limits the application of damages.

(Doe v. Chao) AB

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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