Oral argument: Nov. 30, 2011
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (June 20, 2011)
A joint criminal investigation carried out by the Department of Transportation and the Social Security Administration revealed that Respondent Stanmore Cawthon Cooper failed to disclose that he had HIV to one agency, while simultaneously collecting medical benefits from the other. Upon being convicted for making these misrepresentations, Cooper brought suit against the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Transportation, and the Social Security Administration under the Privacy Act of 1974, arguing that the Government had unlawfully disclosed his HIV status. The district court dismissed the suit, holding that the Privacy Act’s language, which imposes liability on federal agencies only in cases where an individual suffered “actual damages,” does not cover Cooper’s allegations of emotional harm. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the term “actual damages” encompasses mental or emotional harm suffered. The FAA now appeals, arguing that the term “actual damages” is ambiguous and must be construed in favor of the federal government to exclude noneconomic damages. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will address whether emotional and other noneconomic damages are “actual damages,” raising broad implications for future suits under the Privacy Act.