Mar 282012
 

James Vicini reports on a somewhat disappointing but unsurprising verdict by the Supreme Court:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a pilot from San Francisco, whose status as HIV-infected was disclosed by one federal agency to another one in violation of a privacy law, cannot sue for damages for mental and emotional distress.

By a 5-3 vote with conservative justices holding sway, the court overturned a ruling by a U.S. appeals court in California and held that violations of a 1974 federal privacy law allowed only for actual damages such as out-of-pocket financial losses.

Read more on Reuters. Barbara Leonard of Courthouse News provides additional background on the case.  You can find the Supreme Court’s decision here (pdf), but the heart of it (for me) concerns whether the Privacy Act limited damages to actual damages as in incurred economic loss or includes emotional harm or distress. The court held that the law restricted damages to actual damages, noting:

We do not claim that the contrary reading of the statute accepted by the Court of Appeals and advanced now by respondent is inconceivable. But because the Privacy Act waives the Federal Government’s sovereign immunity, the question we must answer is whether it is plausible to read the statute, as the Government does, to authorize only damages for economic loss. Nordic Village, 503 U. S., at 34, 37. When waiving the Government’s sovereign im­ munity, Congress must speak unequivocally. Lane, 518 U. S., at 192. Here, we conclude that it did not. As a consequence, we adopt an interpretation of “actual dam­ages” limited to proven pecuniary or economic harm. To do otherwise would expand the scope of Congress’ sover­ eign immunity waiver beyond what the statutory text clearly requires.

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