Later, Cooper applied for and was granted his private pilot license and medical certificate after taking the exams over again, and began flying.
Go figure …
In March 2007 Cooper filed his lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, against all the defendants noted above, alleging violation of the Privacy Act (noted above) of 1974, and violation of Article 1, section 1 of the California Constitution (Invasion of Privacy).
After presentation of evidence the judge in this District Court case stated: “the court finds that the DOT-OIG and the SSA-OIG improperly shared his information with each other in violation of the Privacy Act.”
The court further found that this was willful and intentional. However, the judge dismissed Cooper’s case and denied his summary judgment motion because he did not present evidence of pecuniary damages to satisfy the actual damage requirement of the statute. This was simply a technical defect to his lawsuit that could have been easily cured in the District Court case but it seems that the judge here wanted this case to be heard on appeal.
Cooper did appeal this decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, also in San Francisco. The Court of Appeals after a full review of the case sided with Cooper in that they found that he did indeed suffer actual damages and they need not only be pecuniary.
In other words he could be compensated not only for his out-of-pocket money damages, (for example if he lost income as a pilot because of his loss of license) but also for his non-pecuniary damages, such as emotional harm, including anxiety, humiliation, fear of social ostracism, and mental distress. It was the first time that an Appellate Court had stated that actual damages in the statute were meant to include non-pecuniary damages. This was a huge decision and will finally allow compensation to the aggrieved party as the statute proposed.
The case will now go back to the District Court for a hearing on the matter of damages to Cooper. He can now set forth what he suffered by way of both pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages and hopefully have them awarded by the court. The government may seek a further hearing in the 9th Circuit and or go forward with an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, many believe this will be the end of the case with the parties probably reaching some kind of favorable settlement to Cooper. I would even urge punitive damages be awarded for such arbitrary and capricious conduct by the agencies concerned to help make sure it is not repeated. Of course, as usual, no government agents have been reprimanded or fired as a result of their outrageous conduct. It was clearly illegal from the outset and any judge would have told them so.
The facts of this case illustrate a major breech of trust by the government employees who are charged with protecting an individual’s personal data contained in their files, not releasing such information carte blanche to other government agencies for illegal purposes.
Any pilot who has been caught in this web of deceit (and there are many) should contact his counselor to explore what remedies might be available immediately to perhaps seek redress for the government’s action in view of this decision. Comments to email@example.com.
Stephen P. Prentice is an attorney whose practice involves FAA-NTSB issues. He has an Airframe and Powerplant certificate and is an ATP rated pilot. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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