The Supreme Court gave a generally skeptical hearing to a recreational pilot from San Francisco who wants damages from the government for disclosing his HIV status to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The case before the court Wednesday began in 2002, when the FAA heard a report of a pilot who had hidden his severe medical condition when he renewed his license to fly. Agents decided to check the records of 45,000 pilots in Northern California.
They learned from the Social Security Administration that Stanmore Cooper had obtained long-term disability benefits in 1995 because of his HIV condition. A year earlier, he had reapplied for his pilot's license but failed to disclose his medical condition to the FAA. At the time, his illness may well have prevented him from renewing his license had it been revealed.
Cooper's pilot's license was revoked and he was charged with making false statements to the government. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was fined $1,000.
Cooper then sued the FAA for violating the Privacy Act, which permits claims for "actual damages." Lower courts have been split for decades over whether these damages are limited to monetary losses or can also include claims for mental distress.
Justice Antonin Scalia said the 1974 law "goes far beyond" other privacy laws because it included instances where private records were not revealed to the public. Several justices joined Scalia in suggesting it was unlikely Congress wanted to open the door to damage suits for thousands of people who claim mental distress at learning their records had been examined by two agencies.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco had ruled against Cooper and said the law did not include damages for emotional distress. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and ruled last year that emotional damages, if proven, were included.
Obama administration lawyers appealed in FAA vs. Cooper. They said Congress did not intend to expose the government to damage claims for emotional distress from thousands of people if two agencies shared records, or even Social Security numbers.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor disagreed with the administration's lawyer. They said the hurt suffered from an invasion of privacy was usually emotional or mental, not monetary. A person who is "subjected to embarrassment and humiliation" has suffered damage, Ginsburg said.
Raymond Cardozo, a San Francisco lawyer for Cooper, said his client would have to prove that he had suffered mental distress in order to win.
But most of the justices sounded as though they were inclined to limit the scope of the damages to monetary losses, such as the loss of a job or medical expenses.