Long-term disability application leads to Supreme Court privacy case

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a decision that reinforces the doctrine of sovereign immunity, even when questions of private health data are concerned. The case specifically addresses the provisions of the federal Privacy Act, but it started with a terrible diagnosis and a claim for long-term disability benefits.

The plaintiff had been a recreational pilot for about 20 years when, in the mid-’80s, he discovered he was HIV-positive. It’s important to remember that, in the ’80s, people with HIV faced a grim future. The diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence.

The next 10 years found the plaintiff’s health deteriorating significantly. Flying was no longer possible, so he allowed his pilot’s certificate and his airman medical certificate to lapse. A medical certificate serves as proof that a pilot has successfully passed a medical exam and medical history review, that he is “fit to fly.”

The plaintiff was near death in 1996 when he applied for Social Security long-term disability benefits. Around that time, though, HIV/AIDS researchers developed the “cocktail” of anti-retroviral medications that made it possible to live with HIV. The plaintiff began the course of treatment, and his health improved.

His health improved enough, in fact, that he went back to work. He also wanted to fly. When he learned the Federal Aviation Administration was allowing some applicants to forgo the medical evaluation, he applied to renew his pilot’s license. But he did not disclose his HIV status on the application.

Not only was this omission a violation of federal law, it was mistimed. Soon after he received his new license, local and federal agencies teamed up to identify pilots in the plaintiff’s state whose health history made them unfit to fly. Part of the inquiry involved comparing the roster of licensed pilots to a list of people who received federal benefits — federal benefits like SSDI.

The plaintiff’s lie came to light. That, however, would soon be the least of his problems.

We’ll continue this in our next post.


Alan Olson writes this web-log to provide helpful information regarding employment law cases. He practices employment law throughout the United States from his offices in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Attorney Olson may be contacted at [email protected] with questions about the information posted here or for advice on long-term disability benefis claims.

Source: Local10.com, “Supreme Court rejects damage claim in HIV privacy case,” Bill Mears, CNN, March 28, 2012


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