Feb 222010
 February 22, 2010  Posted by  Court

A new ruling from the Ninth Circuit in Cooper v. FAA addresses the meaning of “actual damages” in the Privacy Act. The case arose when federal agencies shared information without consent in “Operation Safe Pilot:”

The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a et seq. (the Act), prohibits federal agencies from disclosing “any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency” without the consent of “the individual to whom the record pertains,” unless the disclosure falls within one or more enumerated exceptions to the Act. Id. § 552a(b). The Act also creates a private cause of action against an agency for its wilful or intentional violation of the Act that has “an adverse effect on an individual,” and allows for the recovery of “actual damages” sustained as a result of such a violation. Id. § § 552a(g)(1)(D), (g)(4)(A).

Plaintiff Stanmore Cawthon Cooper claims to have sustained actual damages as the result of an interagency
exchange of information performed as part of a joint criminal investigation by Defendants Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Social Security Administration (SSA), and Department of Transportation (DOT) (collectively, the Government). Cooper seeks actual damages for nonpecuniary injuries, such as humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional distress, as a result of the unauthorized interagency disclosure of his medical
information; he does not claim any pecuniary or out-of-pocket losses.

Because Cooper seeks damages only for nonpecuniary injuries, the district court granted summary judgment to the Government, after holding that the Act allows recovery only for pecuniary damages. We hold that actual damages under the Act encompasses both pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages. We reverse and remand to the district court.

Read the court opinion here.

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