Cooper’s private pilot license was revoked. He was also indicted by the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco on three counts of making false statements on his medical applications to a government agency (FAA) in violation of 18 USC 1001. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years probation and fined $1,000. In his lawsuit under the Privacy Act he alleged that by sharing his personal medical information, without his permission or knowledge, he was “humiliated and embarrassed, suffering mental anguish, fear of social ostracism, and other severe emotional distress.” He did not list any money damages like loss of wages or other pecuniary damage. This was a fatal flaw to his claim! If he had been an airline pilot and also had loss of wages then he might have prevailed.
The Court of Appeals on the other hand found that the word “damages” did include the mental distress and other emotional damages and therefore found in his favor but of course the Supremes reversed it.
The Supreme Court admitted in its decision that the term “actual damages” does change depending on the specific statute in which it is found. The term does sometimes include such damages as Cooper alleges … nonpecuniary damages. However, in his case the court said that it is clear that the intent was to provide only for pecuniary damages, i.e. money damages, generally referred to as “special damages.” Sadly for Cooper he alleged none.
This decision illustrates the point that to use this statute you must point to some specific thing such as loss of a job or something that is an actual out of pocket money damage incurred as a result of the unlawful disclosure of the government. Cooper’s lawyer maybe could have done this in his complaint. Surely there was some out of pocket expense that could have been tied to this unlawful disclosure?
Mechanics who also hold pilot certificates should keep in mind that there are ways now with the click of a computer mouse to check on your statements on your medical applications. There is almost total automatic sharing of medical information due to the waivers that you sign on these applications and the authorized medical people can find your complete medical history with little difficulty.
You must put down everything on your application … any history that you have not reported, medications not reported, etc., etc. They can easily cross check and find that you have not reported a previous history that is in some other medical record in the medical care system. Even outside of government records, many medical insurance and hospital plans now provide for computerized sharing of your medical information freely between each other and the government, simply because somewhere on a form you have given your permission for them to do so.
Be forwarned … the FAA can easily track your medical problems and if found not reported will consider filing criminal falsification charges under 18 USC 1001. In addition, of course, it will revoke all of your FAA airman certificates, including your A&P. Cooper was put through the federal grinder for what was thought to be a minor failure to report issue on his form. He stated for example that he did not think he had to report HIV because it was a particularly private matter and did not have to be reported … he was wrong of course. Don’t bother asking your AME if you should report it … his opinion is not controlling and will not help as an excuse … just report it.
On the other hand, the conduct of these agencies, their employees, and agents, in this case, was particularly egregious and should have been discussed by the court … it was not, of course. Perhaps some sort of punitive award could have been given. The record in the District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sets out in detail how poorly he was treated by the government agents concerned. Of course, they still all have their jobs … none of the government agents were sanctioned for their actions.
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. He is a USAF veteran. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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