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Law School Case Brief

FAA v. Cooper - 566 U.S. 284, 132 S. Ct. 1441 (2012)


The civil remedies provision of the Privacy Act provides that, for any "intentional or willful" refusal or failure to comply with the Act, the United States shall be liable for actual damages sustained by the individual as a result of the refusal or failure, but in no case shall a person entitled to recovery receive less than the sum of $1,000. 5 U.S.C.S. § 552a(g)(4)(A). "Actual damages" is a legal term of art, and it is a cardinal rule of statutory construction that, when Congress employs a term of art, it presumably knows and adopts the cluster of ideas that were attached to each borrowed word in the body of learning from which it was taken. Even as a legal term, however, the meaning of "actual damages" is far from clear. A law dictionary that was available when Congress enacted the Privacy Act defined "actual damages" as real, substantial, and just damages, or the amount awarded to a complainant in compensation for his actual and real loss or injury, as opposed on the one hand to "nominal" damages, and on the other to "exemplary" or "punitive" damages. But the precise meaning of the term changes with the specific statute in which it is found.


A pilot, who contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1985, applied for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certificates in 1994, 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004 without disclosing his HIV status or his medications. He was charged with making false statements to a U.S. Government agency, in violation of 18 U.S.C.S. § 1001, after the Social Security Administration (SSA) disclosed his HIV status to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). After he pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $1,000, he sued the FAA, the DOT, and the SSA, claiming that the SSA's unlawful disclosure of his confidential medical information caused him mental and emotional distress.


Can an HIV-positive pilot recover damages from a governmental entity that disclosed his medical status, for his alleged mental and emotional distress?




The Supreme Court found that the pilot was not allowed under 5 U.S.C. § 552a to recover damages for mental and emotional distress. Congress limited the type of money damages that could be recovered to “actual damages” in § 552a(g)(4)(A), and that term did not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress and did not waive the Government's sovereign immunity from liability for such harm.

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