FAA v. Cooper
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION et al. v. COOPER
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
No. 10–1024. Argued November 30, 2011—Decided March 28, 2012
Respondent Cooper, a licensed pilot, failed to disclose his human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) diagnosis to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at a time when the agency did not issue medical certificates, which are required to operate an aircraft, to persons with HIV. Subsequently, respondent applied to the Social Security Administration (SSA) and received long-term disability benefits on the basis of his HIV status. Thereafter, he renewed his certificate with the FAA on several occasions, each time intentionally withholding information about his condition. The Department of Transportation (DOT), the FAA’s parent agency, launched a joint criminal investigation with the SSA to identify medically unfit individuals who had obtained FAA certifications. The DOT provided the SSA with the names of licensed pilots, and the SSA, in turn, provided the DOT with a spreadsheet containing information on those pilots who had also received disability benefits. Respondent’s name appeared on the spreadsheet, and an investigation led to his admission that he had intentionally withheld information about his HIV status from the FAA. His pilot certificate was revoked, and he was indicted for making false statements to a Government agency. He pleaded guilty and was fined and sentenced to probation. He then filed suit, alleging that the FAA, DOT, and SSA violated the Privacy Act of 1974, which contains a detailed set of requirements for the management of records held by Executive Branch agencies. The Act allows an aggrieved individual to sue for “actual damages,” 5 U. S. C. §552a(g)(4)(A), if the Government intentionally or willfully violates the Act’s requirements in such a way as to adversely affect the individual. Specifically, respondent claimed that the unlawful disclosure to the DOT of his confidential medical information had caused him mental and emotional distress. The District Court concluded that the Government had violated the Act. But, finding the term “actual damages” ambiguous, the court relied on the sovereign immunity canon, which provides that sovereign immunity waivers must be strictly construed in the Government’s favor, to hold that the Act does not authorize the recovery of nonpecuniary damages. Reversing the District Court, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “actual damages” in the Act is not ambiguous and includes damages for mental and emotional distress.
Held: The Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize damages for mental or emotional distress and therefore does not waive the Government’s sovereign immunity from liability for such harms. Pp. 4–19.
(a) A waiver of sovereign immunity must be unequivocally expressed in statutory text, see e.g., Lane v. Peña, 518 U. S. 187 , and any ambiguities are to be construed in favor of immunity, United States v. Williams, 514 U. S. 527 . Ambiguity exists if there is a plausible interpretation of the statute that would not allow money damages against the Government. United States v. Nordic Village, Inc., 503 U. S. 30 . Pp. 5–6.
(b) The term “actual damages” in the Privacy Act is a legal term of art, and Congress, when it employs a term of art, “ ‘presumably knows and adopts the cluster of ideas that were attached to each borrowed word in the body of learning from which it was taken,’ ” Molzof v. United States, 502 U. S. 301 . Even as a legal term, the precise meaning of “actual damages” is far from clear. Although the term is sometimes understood to include nonpecuniary harm, it has also been used or construed more narrowly to cover damages for only pecuniary harm. Because of the term’s chameleon-like quality, it must be considered in the particular context in which it appears. Pp. 6–9.
(c) The Privacy Act serves interests similar to those protected by defamation and privacy torts. Its remedial provision, under which plaintiffs can recover a minimum award of $1,000 if they first prove at least some “actual damages,” “parallels” the common-law torts of libel per quod and slander, under which plaintiffs can recover “general damages” if they first prove “special damages.” Doe v. Chao, 540 U. S. 614 . “Special damages” are limited to actual pecuniary loss, which must be specially pleaded and proved. “General damages” cover nonpecuniary loss and need not be pleaded or proved. This parallel suggests the possibility that Congress intended the term “actual damages” to mean “special damages,” thus barring Privacy Act victims from any recovery unless they can first show some actual pecuniary harm. That Congress would choose “actual damages” instead of “special damages” is not without precedent, as the terms have occasionally been used interchangeably. Furthermore, any doubt about the plausibility of construing “actual damages” as special damages in the Privacy Act is put to rest by Congress’ deliberate refusal to allow recovery for “general damages.” In common-law defamation and privacy cases, special damages is the only category of compensatory damages other than general damages. Because Congress declined to authorize general damages, it is reasonable to infer that Congress intended the term “actual damages” in the Act to mean special dam-ages for proven pecuniary loss. Pp. 9–14.
(d) Although the contrary reading of the Privacy Act accepted by the Ninth Circuit and advanced by respondent is not inconceivable, it is plausible to read the Act as authorizing only damages for economic loss. Because Congress did not speak unequivocally, the Court adopts an interpretation of “actual damages” limited to proven pecuniary harm. To do otherwise would expand the scope of Congress’ sovereign immunity waiver beyond what the statutory text clearly requires. P. 14.
(e) Respondent raises several counterarguments: (1) common-law cases often define “actual damages” to mean all compensatory damages; (2) the elimination of “general damages” from the Privacy Act means that there can be no recovery for presumed damages, but plaintiffs can still recover for proven mental and emotional distress; (3) because some courts have construed “actual damages” in similar statutes to include mental and emotional distress, Congress must have intended “actual damages” in the Act to include mental and emotional distress as well; and (4) precluding nonpecuniary damages would lead to absurd results, thereby frustrating the Act’s remedial purpose. None of these arguments overcomes the sovereign immu-nity canon. Pp. 14–19.
622 F. 3d 1016, reversed and remanded.
Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg and Breyer, JJ., joined. Kagan, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.