Supreme Court rules on government liability for emotional damages

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 5-3 [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the phrase "actual damages" as found in the Privacy Act of 1974 [5 USC § 552a] is sufficiently ambiguous to prevent the authorization of lawsuits against the government for claims of mental and emotional distress. Respondent Cooper, a pilot, was convicted and fined for failing to disclose to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that he had HIV, a fact that was illegally revealed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) [official websites] where Cooper sought disability based on his HIV status. The Privacy Act contains a detailed set of requirements for the management of records held by executive branch agencies and allows an aggrieved individual to sue for "actual damages" if the government intentionally or willfully violates the Act's requirements in such a way as to adversely affect the individual. In an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, the court decided:

[A]pplying traditional rules of construction, we hold 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.
The judgment reversed a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had held [opinion, PDF] that "actual damages" as termed in the Act is not ambiguous and includes damages for mental and emotional distress. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision.

The court heard arguments [JURIST report] in the case in December. The government argued that Congress, by specifically excluding general damages, did not provide for damages for mental and emotional distress or, at least, did not clearly waive sovereign immunity. Asserting the dichotomy of special (or economic) damages versus general damages, inclusive of damages for mental and emotional distress, the government insisted that only damages of pecuniary nature could be recovered from the government under the Privacy Act. Cooper insisted that the government's argument unnecessarily introduced ambiguity into the statute, undermining the purpose of the Act, and that the plain meaning of "actual damages" is proved damages, as opposed to presumed damages. Cooper further argued that under the government's construction of the statute, intentional and willful violations of the act, such as a whistleblower the government wants to silence by leaking embarrassing details to the press as opposed to outright firing, would have no remedy because they are not out of pocket any money.

 

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