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January 15, 2010

HIV-Positive Pilot Files Damages Suit for Status Disclosure

San Francisco pilot Stanmore Cooper is suing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Social Security Administration (SSA), the U.S. Department of Transportation and other federal agencies for freely sharing information about his HIV status, claiming a violation of the Privacy Act, reports.

The 36-year-old privacy law prohibits federal agencies from sharing information gathered about an individual for one reason to be used for an unrelated purpose.

According to the article, Cooper said he was “emotionally devastated” when the SSA disclosed his HIV status with the FAA in 2005 when the latter agency was conducting a probe called “Operation Safe Pilot.” The FAA then charged Cooper with making false statements to a government agency because pilots are required to disclose their medical histories to maintain their licenses. Cooper was fined $1,000 and sentenced to two years probation. Cooper sued in 2007, citing emotional damages.

Federal agencies claim that willful and intentional violations of the Privacy Act do not include non-financial damages, such as emotional or mental distress.

At a January 15 hearing, three judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the definition of “actual damages” is unclear.

“‘Actual damages’ is clearly a limiting term,” explained Samantha Chaifetz, a Department of Justice attorney. “Here what we know for certain is that the term has no plain meaning.”

“But doesn’t that actually argue against the government’s case?” countered Judge Milan Smith Jr. “It is, after all, a privacy act. The whole idea is that there are things about ourselves we want to keep private. I would think that 99 percent of the damages that would be suffered would be emotional or non-pecuniary damages.”

If the case is sent back to court, Cooper’s attorney, David Bird, must present testimonials to prove that Cooper’s emotional distress over the HIV disclosure is distinguishable from the shame related to his arrest. 

Search: pilot, disclosure, Stanmore Cooper, Federal Aviation Administration, Social Security Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, emotional damages

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