F.A.A. v. Cooper

Summarized by:

  • Court: U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted
  • Area(s) of Law: Civil Procedure
  • Date Filed: November 30, 2011
  • Case #: 10-1024
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: 622 F. 3d 1016 (9th Cir. 2010)
  • Full Text Opinion

Whether a plaintiff who alleges only mental and emotional injuries can establish actual damages within the meaning of the civil remedies provision of the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)(4)(A).

Pilots are required by the FAA to have pilot’s certificate and a valid medical certificate. Cooper, a pilot, learned in the mid-1980’s that he was HIV-positive and began taking antiretroviral medication. From the time of his diagnosis until 2005 Cooper repeatedly withheld his medical condition in applying for his required medical certificate. In 2005, as part of Operation Safe Pilot, Cooper’s deception was uncovered by a joint Social Security Administration (SSA) & Department of Transportation (DOT) criminal investigation. Cooper pleaded guilty to one count of making and delivering a false official writing in violation of federal law and was sentenced to two years probation and fined $1000. Cooper then sued the Department of Transportation, FAA, and SSA alleging that these agencies willfully or intentionally violated the Privacy Act by sharing records as part of Operation Safe Pilot and that he suffered emotional distress as result.The district court granted summary judgment for the government finding that Cooper had failed to make out a claim for actual damages and stating that the principles of sovereign immunity required strict construction of the Privacy Act’s actual damages provision, which cannot be satisfied where nonpecuniary harm is alleged. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding that the term "actual damages" was unambiguous and that a construction limiting recovery to pecuniary loss only was not plausible.

FAA contends that under the Privacy Act actions for monetary relief against the federal government are permitted only when intentional or willful violations of specified provisions are shown to have caused actual damages. Further, waiver of the Federal Government’s sovereign immunity must be unequivocally expressed in the statutory text and any ambiguity in the scope of such waiver must be narrowly construed in the government’s favor. Consequently, FAA argues that the term "actual damages" does not unequivocally express a waiver for nonpecuniary damages and so the Court of Appeals erred in holding that it was.

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