Law School Case Brief
Cooper v. FAA - 596 F.3d 538 (9th Cir. 2010)
The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C.S. § 552a et seq., provides actual damages for intentional or wilful violations that have an adverse effect on an individual. The Ninth Circuit and at least seven others have recognized that a nonpecuniary harm, such as emotional distress, may constitute an adverse effect under the Act. Even the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit acknowledged in Fitzpatrick that humiliation or an emotional injury can qualify as an adverse effect.
The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a et seq. (the Act), prohibitted federal agencies from disclosing "any record which was contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency" without the consent of "the individual to whom the record pertained," unless the disclosure falls within one or more enumerated exceptions to the Act. The Act also created a private cause of action against an agency for its willful or intentional violation of the Act that has "an adverse effect on an individual," and allowed for the recovery of "actual damages" sustained as a result of such a violation. Plaintiff Stanmore Cawthon Cooper claimed to have sustained actual damages as the result of an interagency exchange of information performed as part of a joint criminal investigation by defendants Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Social Security Administration (SSA), and Department of Transportation (DOT) (collectively, the Government). Cooper was seeking actual damages for non-pecuniary injuries, such as humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional distress, as a result of the unauthorized interagency disclosure of his medical information; he did not claim any pecuniary or out-of-pocket losses. Because Cooper sought damages only for non-pecuniary injuries, the district court granted summary judgment to the Government, after holding that the Act allows recovery only for pecuniary damages.
Does “recovery of actual damages” as stipulated in The Privacy Act of 1974, only refer to pecuniary damages?
Because there was no plain meaning to the term actual damages, as used in the Act, the court consulted the term in its statutory context. Given the nature of the injuries that most frequently flowed from privacy violations, the court posited that it was difficult to see how Congress's stated goal of subjecting federal agencies to civil suit for any damages resulting from a willful or intentional violation of the Act could have been fully realized unless the Act encompassed both pecuniary and non-pecuniary injuries. According to the court, in using the term “actual damages”, Congress clearly intended that when a federal agency intentionally or willfully failed to uphold its recordkeeping obligations under the Act, and that failure proximately caused an adverse effect on a plaintiff, the plaintiff was entitled to recover for both pecuniary and non-pecuniary injuries.
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