We are still discussing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision about the Privacy Act and its waiver of sovereign immunity. The plaintiff sued a handful of federal agencies when his HIV status was made public; the agencies had shared information about him, including his application for Social Security disability benefits. In the majority opinion, the court focused on the act allowing individuals to file civil actions if they suffered “actual damages” because of an agency’s violation.
Sovereign immunity generally bars lawsuits against the government. Lawsuits are allowed when the government does something that a government shouldn’t do — a wrongful conviction, for example — and when the statute or the federal code like the Privacy Act says that a government’s violation of the law opens it up to private actions. Sovereign immunity acts a little like Star Trek’s shields. The government lowers them in some cases and keeps them up in others.
Again, the Privacy Act states that the shields must be lowered if a claimant suffers actual damages. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that actual damages include both monetary and non-monetary losses. The plaintiff had sued for emotional distress, not economic loss; the 9th Circuit held that he was eligible for a damage award.
The Supreme Court opinion went the other way. The majority wrote that the term is not ambiguous at all. Rather, it is a legal term of art and, in that context, refers only to economic damages. Because the plaintiff was only asking for noneconomic damages, his claim failed. The Privacy Act does not waive the government’s sovereign immunity if a claimant only suffers emotional distress.
So when individuals say the government has violated the Privacy Act, the government lowers its shields for economic — monetary — loss. Shields are up if the claimant has only suffered emotional distress or mental anguish.
Unless, of course, Congress changes the law.
Local10.com, “Supreme Court rejects damage claim in HIV privacy case,” Bill Mears, CNN, March 28, 2012
F.A.A. v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1441 (U.S., 2012), via Westlaw (subscription)