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U.S. Supreme Court rules emotional distress damages not available under Privacy Act

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that a plaintiff cannot collect damages for emotional distress for government violations of…

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that a plaintiff cannot collect damages for emotional distress for government violations of the federal Privacy Act.

In a 5-3 decision in Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said “actual damages” in context of the Privacy Act do not include damages for mental or emotional distress and the government maintains sovereign immunity from such claims under the act. Sovereign immunity is the legal doctrine that insulates the federal government from legal liability for certain official actions.

Though the term “actual damages” is a “legal term of art,” the Court said its meaning was unclear in the law. “Because the term ‘actual damages’ has this chameleon-like quality, we cannot rely on any all-purpose definition but must consider the particular context in which the term appears.”

The Privacy Act prohibits federal agencies from releasing certain personal information and citizens may have a claim against the government if their information is publicly released.

Stanmore Cooper, a private pilot who brought the Privacy Act suit at issue, alleged the FAA, Department of Transportation and Social Security Administration violated the act and caused him “humiliation,” “embarrassment” and “other severe emotional distress” when the agencies internally shared that Cooper was HIV positive. Because it would risk Cooper's status as a licensed pilot, he did not disclose his HIV status to the FAA. He did, however, list it as part of an application for long-term disability benefits through Social Security. The information was shared between the agencies as part of a government program to uncover FAA-licensed pilots who may be medically unfit to fly.

Agencies may not disclose records between one another without a person's written consent, except for law enforcement purposes. In Cooper's case, a lower court found that the agencies did not share his records using this process.

The Court found that the act’s provision for “actual damages” paralleled similar provisions in defamation torts that specify “general damages,” which may include mental or emotional distress, would be covered if “special damages,” which are limited to a monetary loss, are proved. In FAA v. Cooper, the Court said Congress intended for “actual damages” to be interchangeable with “special damages.”

“Because Congress declined to authorize ‘general damages,’ we think it likely that Congress intended ‘actual damages’ in the Privacy Act to mean special damages for proven [monetary] loss,” Alito wrote.

By saying that “actual damages” are the same as “special damages,” the government also upheld the its' sovereign immunity. The Privacy Act does not explicitly state that the government waives its immunity, and the Court said that the ambiguity is interpreted as immunity.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority erred when it looked only at the economic loss associated with “actual damages” and “concluding that ‘hurt feelings’ are … invalid in an Act concerned with safeguarding individual privacy.”

“The problem for the majority is that one looks in vain for any indication in the text of the statute before us that Congress intended such a result,” Sotomayor said. “Nowhere in the Privacy Act does Congress so much as hint that it views a $5 hit to the pocketbook as more worthy of remedy than debilitating mental distress, and the majority’s contrary assumption discounts the gravity of emotional harm caused by an invasion of the personal integrity that privacy protects.”

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the decision.

Herschel Fink — a lawyer who represented a Detroit Free Press reporter subpoenaed in an unrelated Privacy Act suit — called the decision "very, very useful" for journalists.

"I think that probably most of the Privacy Act cases dealing with reports published by newspapers result in reputational and emotional harm rather than economic," he said. "If those are the only kind of damages that the plaintiff can establish, then, we win."

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Federal Open Government Guide: The Privacy Act

· News: Supreme Court looks at role of damages in privacy violation

· News: DEA agent fails to prove viral video violated Privacy Act

· News: Privacy Act suit based on leak to Detroit reporter dismissed