A pilot who lost his license because he failed to disclose he was HIV-positive can sue the federal government for emotional distress for mishandling his medical records, a federal appeals court ruled last month.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Social Security Administration improperly turned over Stanmore Cooper’s medical records to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The San Francisco man disclosed his condition to Social Security officials to receive medical benefits but withheld his HIV status from the FAA.
During a criminal investigation involving pilots’ medical fitness to fly, the Social Security agency gave the FAA the medical records of some 45,000 Northern California residents who applied for licenses.
The FAA was investigating whether pilots were using one set of doctors to certify their fitness to fly while applying to Social Security for disability payments using other doctors to support claims of illness and injury.
Cooper was identified in “Operation Safe Pilot’’ as an FAA licensee who was also receiving disability benefits. He admitted withholding his HIV condition from the FAA on applications filed between 1998 and 2004.
The FAA has since changed it policy, but at the time HIV-positive applicants were denied a pilot’s license.
Cooper acknowledged purposefully withholding the information from the FAA and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false statement. He paid a $1,000 fine. Despite the conviction, he sued the federal government in 2007 for violating the Privacy Act after discovering the SSA turned over his medical records to the FAA without his consent.
U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker previously agreed that Cooper’s records were improperly turned over but ruled he could only recover actual damages. Since Cooper only alleged emotional distress and no out-of-pocket expenses over disclosures of a disease he kept private, the judge tossed out the lawsuit.
But a unanimous three-judge panel of the federal appeals court ruled Monday that emotional distress caused by the disclosure of Cooper’s illness counts as actual damages. The court reinstated the lawsuit.
“Individuals who suffer emotional distress as a result of government violations of the Privacy Act can now recover monetary damages,’’ said Cooper’s attorney David Bird.