We are picking up our discussion from earlier this month of a U.S. Supreme Court case that provoked some strong feelings for commentators. As we explained in our April 5 post, the case was brought by a man whose HIV status became public knowledge at the hands of the federal government.
He had applied for Social Security long-term disability benefits when he was ill. Fortunately, treatment options became available, and his health improved. Fast forward six years, when federal and local investigators launched Operation Safe Pilot, a criminal investigation targeted at identifying medically unfit pilots (even recreational, like the plaintiff) who were also receiving federal benefits.
The agents discovered that the plaintiff had lied about his health history when he re-applied for his pilot's license. Shortly thereafter, his name appeared on a federal press release about the investigation, and his HIV status became public knowledge.
He sued the government. In his complaint, he said the Federal Aviation Administration, the Social Security Administration and the United States Department of Transportation had violated the Privacy Act when they shared information about him.
The Privacy Act of 1974 describes in great detail how federal agencies are to manage confidential records. If an agency violates the law "in such a way as to have an adverse effect on an individual," that person is allowed sue. If a court determines that the violation was intentional or willful, the court may order the federal government to pay what the law refers to as "actual damages."
The plaintiff did not claim to have suffered any economic harm -- he hadn't lost his job or been denied services, and he had not incurred medical expenses as a result of the government's actions. Instead, he claimed the government's actions caused him mental and emotional distress.
The court's decision turned on the definition of "actual damages" and whether emotional distress constituted actual damages under the Privacy Act. In the end, the majority found for the government.
We will explain the court's reasoning in our next post.
Alan Olson practices employment law throughout the United States from his offices in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Attorney Olson may be contacted at AOlson@Employee-Advocates.com with questions about the information posted here or for advice on long-term disability benefits claims.
Source: Local10.com, "Supreme Court rejects damage claim in HIV privacy case," Bill Mears, CNN, March 28, 2012