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U.S. top court limits damages in HIV-infected pilot's case

Posted On: Mar. 28, 2012 12:00 AM CST

WASHINGTON (Reuters)—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.

The case stemmed from an investigation dubbed "Operation Safe Pilot" by the U.S. Transportation Department and the Social Security Administration. It checked information by government agencies concerning 45,000 pilots in northern California.

Investigators learned from the Social Security Administration that San Francisco pilot Stanmore Cooper had obtained disability benefits in 1995 because of his HIV condition. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Mr. Cooper in 1994 had reapplied for a pilot's license without disclosing his medical condition to the Federal Aviation Administration. His illness at the time, if revealed, would have disqualified him from getting a license.

When the FAA learned about Mr. Cooper's condition, his license was revoked and he was charged with making false statements to the federal government. He pleaded guilty and was fined $1,000.

Mr. Cooper then sued the federal government in 2007, claiming he was entitled to damages for mental and emotional distress under the 1974 Privacy Act because the Social Security administration improperly turned over information about his medical condition without his consent.

The Supreme Court agreed with the federal government's argument that the law provided only for actual damages, not for emotional or mental injuries such as anxiety, or sleeplessness, as claimed by Mr. Cooper.

Government lawyers said that if Congress, in adopting the law, had intended uncapped emotional distress damages it would have said so clearly.

Justice Samuel Alito said in the majority opinion that the privacy law does not "unequivocally authorize an award of damages for mental or emotional distress." He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision.

The Supreme Court agreed to decide the issue after conflicting federal appeals court rulings.