The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in a Privacy Act case has caused a stir among consumer advocates and in legal circles. The plaintiff accused the Federal Aviation Administration, the Social Security Administration and the United States Department of Transportation of violating the Privacy Act when the agencies shared information about his Social Security long-term disability benefits. As we said in our last post, the majority decision turned on the Privacy Act’s use of the term “actual damages.”
The Privacy Act addresses how the government deals with the massive amount of personal data different agencies hold about all of us. Think about Al Capone — the FBI could not make criminal charges stick, until someone looked at Capone’s tax records. He was eventually convicted of tax evasion. Granted, that was a criminal matter, but in those days, the government considered any information shared with one agency to be open to all agencies.
That changed with the Privacy Act of 1974. Agencies must follow strict guidelines when dealing with or sharing personal data. If an agency violates the act, the law allows individuals to sue. The doctrine of sovereign immunity prohibits individuals from suing the government in most cases; that’s why the act specifically allowed individuals to file civil actions.
Usually, when a court interprets a statute or code, it looks at the “plain meaning” of undefined terms. Suppose a law prohibited loud noises “in the morning hours.” The court would have to figure out the plain meaning of “morning hours” — after sunrise? Between midnight and 10:00? When a term is ambiguous, a court will look at what the legislature or Congress intended. It’s not always an easy process.
And courts don’t always agree.
Continued in our next post.
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)