Supreme Court: HIV-positive man can’t recover for emotional damages from medical disclosure

In a case with far-reaching implications for government accountability for medical privacy violations, the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 opinion, ruled March 28 that federal executive agencies are immune from lawsuits alleging emotional distresses in the event that it illegally discloses confidential medical records.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Reversing a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court’s five more conservatives members, determined that the 1974 Privacy Act only authorizes damages for “actual damages,” such as a financial loss or the end of a job. The majority noted that the plaintiff in the case may be able to recover for “actual damages.”

“Applying traditional rules of construction, we hold that the Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress,” the majority stated. “Accordingly, the Act does not waive the Federal Government’s sovereign immunity from liability for such harms.”

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the phrase “actual damages” has been interpreted in a variety of contexts to include emotional distress claims.

“Today the Court holds that “actual damages” is limited to pecuniary loss. Consequently, individuals can no longer recover what our precedents and common sense understand to be the primary, and often only, damages sustained as a result of an invasion of privacy, namely mental or emotional distress,” the dissent stated. “That result is at odds with the text, structure, and drafting history of the Act. And it cripples the Act’s core purpose of redressing and deterring violations of privacy interests.”

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case.

The plaintiff, who originally became a licensed pilot with the Federal Aviation Administration in 1964, was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Knowing that, at the time, the FAA barred pilots with HIV, the plaintiff applied for long-term disability benefits with the Social Security Administration in 1995. However, he then withheld this information when he reapplied for an FAA license three years later and resumed flying.

As part of an investigation by the Department of Transportation in 2002, the SSA turned over his file, unveiling that he had HIV, resulting in the loss of license. Though he pleaded guilty to one county delivering a false official writing, which resulted in a $1,000 fine and two years of probation, the plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging violations of his medical privacy under the Privacy Act.