According to reports by CNN and NPR the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case concerning the federal government and an individual’s right to privacy. Here are the transcripts of the Oral Arguments. Specifically, the case before the High Court concerns whether the federal government is liable for damages when it violates the Privacy Act by disclosing that an individual is HIV-positive. Unusually, the government is not attempting to deny its wrongdoing; they fully admit that they broke the law. However, they argue that the Privacy Act only authorizes damage suits when violations have caused economic harm, not merely emotional distress.
The case centers on Stan Cooper, a retired Visa International vice president and a recreational pilot until the 1980s when he was diagnosed HIV-positive. As a result of the diagnosis he allowed his pilot’s medical certificate to lapse. Then in 1994 Cooper reapplied to the Federal Aviation Administration and purposely failed to disclose his HIV status out of fear that he would be automatically disqualified from flying. Cooper then renewed his medical certificate four more times without disclosing his HIV status, even after the FAA changed their rules to allow some HIV-positive pilots to continue flying if they met certain requirements. Cooper claims he would have met the criteria and been able to maintain his medical certificate but that he “didn't want to admit that I had falsified that first application.”
Cooper decided to instead keep quiet. Failing to report your health status to the FAA is a felony under federal law. When Cooper learned the FAA had begun an amnesty program specifically for people like him he began the process of coming clean.
Sadly for Cooper he waited too long. The FAA and the Social Security Administration had already teamed up to identify pilots who had failed to disclose important medical conditions. The operation, dubbed Operation Safe Pilot, worked by cross-referencing the names of some 45,000 pilots in Northern California with a list of individuals who received Social Security benefits. The project eventually came up with some 3,200 violators. Cooper was among them. In 1995 Cooper applied for and received disability benefits for roughly 12 months. As a result, he was charged with three felonies though this was eventually reduced to one misdemeanor false statement charge. He was then sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation and fined $1,000.
Cooper is the first to admit that falsifying his records was a serious mistake. Though his fine was relatively small his legal fees were colossal, nearly $200,000 to date.
He’s now suing the federal government to force them to pay for the breach of privacy they committed in Operation Safe Pilot. Social Security medical records are strictly confidential. Disclosure of the records to any other federal or state agency, without the consent of the individual in question, is clearly illegal. The Privacy Act spells out that the “United States shall be liable” for “actual damages” sustained by an individual as the result of any violation of the law.
Cooper filed suit arguing he was humiliated, embarrassed and suffering from both mental anguish and severe emotional distress.
Though a federal district court agreed that the feds had violated the Privacy Act, the Court threw out the case because Cooper did not claim specific economic damages. A federal appeals court later reinstated the suit and it has now risen to the level of Supreme Court review.
The Obama administration argues that the language of the Privacy Act is ambiguous and, as a result, the government ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. Since there is no clear authorization to sue for emotional damages, the administration believes no suit should be allowed to continue.
Cooper, however, believes the government violated a fundamental right in their efforts to ensure pilot safety. “This was a fishing expedition,” he says. Cooper remains a licensed pilot though, adding insult to injury, his name and HIV status are still posted on the FAA’s website.
Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times on yesterday's oral argument.
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