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Supreme Court Rules Man Cannot Sue Government for Records Sharing
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On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot be sued for emotional distress. This ruling came after two agencies shared the medical records of a man that detailed 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. Alito was responsible for writing the 5-3 opinion that threw out the Stanmore Cooper lawsuit. “Accordingly, the act does not waive the federal government’s sovereign immunity from liability for such harms.”


The man, from San Francisco, is HIV positive and sent that medical information to Social Security officials in order to receive medical benefits. He decided to not provide that medical information to the Federal Aviation Administration. The Social Security Administration sent the medical information to the Federal Aviation Administration when a criminal investigation was conducted regarding the medical fitness of a pilot in order to fly. The medical records of close to 45,000 other residents in Northern California were also sent to the FAA because those people applied for licenses to become pilots.

The investigation by the FAA was launched in an effort to find out if pilots were using two different doctors; one to certify their medical fitness to fly and one to apply for Social Security disability benefits by supporting claims of injury or illness. In ‘Operation Safe Pilot,’ Cooper was identified as a licensee of the FAA who was also being sent disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. Cooper admitted that he withheld his HIV information from the FAA on applications he filed from 1998 to 2004. Cooper pled guilty to a charge of making a false statement, which is a misdemeanor. Cooper had to pay a $1,000 fine for the charge. In the past, applicants who were HIV positive were denied their pilot’s license. That stance for the FAA has since been changed.

Cooper, despite being convicted, decided to sue the government back in 2007 for violation of the Privacy Act once he found out that the Social Security Administration handed over his medical records to the FAA without first asking him if they could do so. The recovery of actual damages could be acquired by Cooper as ruled by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker. The suit was tossed out because Cooper only claimed emotional distress and not expenses from his pocket. The ruling was then overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court said that emotional stress from disclosure of the illness does count as actual damages.

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The dissenting judges on the case were Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Sotomayor said that the ruling “cripples the Act’s core purpose of redressing and deterring violations of privacy interests.”

While working as solicitor general, Justice Elena Kagan was a part of the case, so she did not vote.



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