Supreme Court: FAA vs. Cooper Damages

Will the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974 lose its effectiveness?


When Congress put together the Privacy Act of 1974, Public Law No. 93-579, it included specific language providing for damages to be paid by the government when some agency violates the Act when dealing with the personal privacy of a citizen. The federal law allows an individual to sue the agencies concerned by creating a private cause of action for its willful and or intentional violation.

Congress clearly sought to provide safeguards for citizens against breach of their personal privacy for any misappropriation or mismanagement of personal information that might be in government records. The only way to enforce it was to include a provision for damages to be paid to the aggrieved citizens.

The specific language of the statute protects against threats and hazards that might result in “… substantial harm, embarrassment, inconvenience, or unfairness to any individual on whom information is maintained.” This of course includes just about every citizen.

In order to maintain such confidentiality, the Act controls the disclosure of any information from one agency to another and to third parties. Before any information is exchanged between agencies prior written consent of the person concerned is required by the law.

Stanmore Cooper vs. FAA

Let’s review for a moment … Stanmore Cooper vs. FAA et al. was a case that evolved from an FAA program called Operation Safe Pilot that was developed during 2002. It was devised with the cooperation of the Office of Inspector General of the FAA, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Social Security Administration (SSA). The whole program was designed to double check on what medical information pilots (and other airmen) put down on their regular medical exam forms (Form 8500-8). They wanted to know if the people were telling the truth about their medical conditions.

So, the FAA asked the SSA to provide information on any recipients of Social Security aid because of medical problems that were compensable through Social Security disability payments. By cross checking they could determine if any airmen were fibbing regarding any of their disabilities. (Incidentally, the question of disabilities payments is now included on the medical exam form.)

The operation was devised by some energetic inspectors who wanted to make a name for themselves. The FAA requested information for some 45,000 airmen in the San Francisco area. The information consisted of names, Social Security number, dates of birth, and genders. Social Security provided data which showed airmen who were receiving disability payments and for what. This action was found to be contrary to the law!

Cooper was only one of many airmen who were caught up in what I have previously described as an illegal witch hunt. However, Stanmore Cooper was only a private pilot, who also happened to be HIV positive.

As we all know, HIV is a virus that damages the immune system and can lead to AIDS. Cooper had applied for and received disability payments for a brief period of time, six months. This was clearly confidential medical data that Cooper believed he did not have to report to anybody, much less the FAA. So that is how it all started.

He later had his medical and pilot certificates revoked and was forced to plead guilty to providing false information to the FAA. Needless to say he appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He won his case based on a violation of the Privacy Act. His certificates were returned and his conviction was reversed by the court.

Now, according to current FAA guidelines, if you are HIV seropositive, (without an AIDS manifestation) and on an FAA approved antiviral medicine, you can obtain a Medical Certificate under Special Issuance rules. However, this was was changed after Cooper’s case.

Damages

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