On March 28, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper, No. 10-1024, holding that the Privacy Act of 1974 does not waive the federal government's immunity from liability for claims of mental or emotional distress arising from violations of the Privacy Act because the Act does not unequivocally authorize damages for such claims.
In obtaining and renewing a required medical certificate, private pilot Cooper intentionally withheld information about his diagnosis of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Cooper's health later deteriorated, and he applied for long-term disability benefits, disclosing his HIV condition to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Thereafter, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and SSA together launched a criminal investigation designed to discover medically unfit individuals who had obtained medical certificates. Through the investigation, Cooper's SSA disability file was transferred to the FAA. Cooper ultimately admitted that he had intentionally withheld information about his HIV status from the FAA and pleaded guilty to one count of making and delivering a false official writing in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1018. He then sued, claiming that the FAA, DOT, and SSA (the Agencies) violated the Privacy Act by exchanging his records with one another. He alleged "humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, fear of social ostracism, and other severe emotional distress." The district court granted summary judgment to the Agencies on the ground that although a violation of the Privacy Act had occurred, Cooper could not recover damages because he alleged only mental and emotional harm, not economic loss. The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The civil remedies provision of the Privacy Act provides that in the event of an "intentional or willful" refusal or failure to comply with the requirements, the United States is 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." The term "actual damages" is not defined. The Court ruled that although Congress had consented to be sued for damages under the Privacy Act, its use of the term "actual damages" did not waive sovereign immunity for nonpecuniary losses. The Court noted the canon of interpretation that a waiver of sovereign immunity must be "unequivocally expressed." It also found plausible that Congress intended "actual damages" to refer to "special damages," which are limited to actual pecuniary loss. It likewise noted Congress's failure to authorize "general damages" in the Privacy Act. The Court thus concluded that the Privacy Act "does not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress. Accordingly, the Act does not waive the Federal Government's sovereign immunity from liability for such harms."
Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Ginsburg and Breyer joined. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.