Damages Under the Privacy Act: Is Emotional Harm Actual?

BY Nicole M. Quallen

In Cooper v. Federal Aviation Administration, et al, a District Court in the Northern District of California held that pilot Stanmore Cooper would not be compensated under the Privacy Act for the emotional harm he suffered when the Social Security Administration illegally disclosed his HIV status to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Transportation and, ultimately, the public. This Note attempts to discern whether the Privacy Act’s “actual damages” language includes emotional harm, or only compensates victims for economic loss. Legislative history, canons of statutory interpretation, and a philosophy of vindicating the “purpose” of the statute lead to the conclusion that the Privacy Act should compensate victims of illegal information disclosure for their emotional, as well as pecuniary harm. A proper reading of the statute would require that Mr. Cooper recover for the emotional harm, which resulted from the disclosure of his illness, and consequently, a reversal of the District Court opinion.

DOWNLOAD PDF | 88 N.C. L. Rev.334 (2009)