The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the federal government cannot be sued for emotional distress after two agencies improperly shared a man's medical records detailing his HIV status.
"We hold that the Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress," said Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the 5-3 opinion throwing out Stanmore Cooper's lawsuit. "Accordingly, the act does not waive the federal government's sovereign immunity from liability for such harms."
The San Francisco man, who is HIV-positive, disclosed that information to Social Security officials to receive medical benefits, but withheld it from the Federal Aviation Administration. During a criminal investigation involving pilots' medical fitness to fly, the Social Security Administration gave the FAA the medical records of some 45,000 Northern California residents who applied for licenses.
The FAA was investigating whether pilots were using one set of doctors to certify their fitness to fly while applying to Social Security for disability payments using other doctors to support claims of illness and injury.