WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the federal government cannot be sued for emotional distress after two agencies improperly shared a man’s medical records detailing his HIV status.
“We hold that the Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress,” said Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the 5-3 opinion throwing out Stanmore Cooper’s lawsuit. “Accordingly, the act does not waive the federal government’s sovereign immunity from liability for such harms.”
The San Francisco man, who is HIV-positive, disclosed that information to Social Security officials to receive medical benefits, but withheld it from the Federal Aviation Administration. During a criminal investigation involving pilots’ medical fitness to fly, the Social Security Administration gave the FAA the medical records of some 45,000 Northern California residents who applied for licenses.
The FAA was investigating whether pilots were using one set of doctors to certify their fitness to fly while applying to Social Security for disability payments using other doctors to support claims of illness and injury.
Cooper was identified in “Operation Safe Pilot” as an FAA licensee who also was receiving disability benefits. He admitted withholding his HIV condition from the FAA on applications filed between 1998 and 2004. Cooper pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false statement. He paid a $1,000 fine.
The FAA has since changed its policy, but HIV-positive applicants once were denied a pilot’s license.
Despite the conviction, he sued the federal government in 2007 for violating the Privacy Act after discovering that the Social Security Administration turned over his medical records to the FAA without his consent.
U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled he could only recover actual damages. Because Cooper only alleged emotional distress and no out-of-pocket expenses over disclosures of a disease he kept private, the judge tossed out the suit. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that, saying emotional distress caused by the disclosure of Cooper’s illness counts as actual damages.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented, saying they would have let the Privacy Act lawsuit move forward. The ruling “cripples the Act’s core purpose of redressing and deterring violations of privacy interests,” Sotomayor said.
Justice Elena Kagan did not participate because she worked on the case while solicitor general.
The high court also:
— Ruled immigrants who committed crimes before the government changed the law to keep criminal immigrants from entering the United States can travel abroad for brief periods without jeopardizing their resident alien status. In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court said Panagis Vartelas’ guilty plea in 1994 is controlled by the “legal regime in force at the time of his conviction,” not by the 1996 law that banned foreign travel by criminal immigrants like him.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented, saying since Vartelas’ trip happened in 2003, the law in force at that time should apply.
— Ruled that judges can order federal sentences to run consecutively with future state sentences. In his 6-3 opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said Monroe Setser did not identify “any flaw in the District Court’s decision-making process” when it sentenced him to a 151-month prison term to run consecutively with a future state sentence for a drug offense and parole violation. Texas officials eventually gave him a five-year sentence on the probation violation and 10 years on the drug charge.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer dissented, with Breyer saying “a federal sentencing judge does not have the power to order that a ‘federal sentence be consecutive to an anticipated state sentence that has not yet been imposed.’“