Under the federal Privacy Act, it is illegal for federal agencies to reveal a person’s confidential medical information. Nevertheless, the Social Security Administration did exactly that when it revealed to another agency that a California man is HIV positive. In a 5-3 decision yesterday (Kagan was recused) the Supreme Court effectively held that this man is completely without remedy for this violation of his privacy:
In a 5-3 ruling, the high court decided Stanmore Cooper’s claims of mental and emotional distress are not covered under the Privacy Act.
“The Privacy Act does not unequivocally authorize damages for mental or emotional distress and therefore does not waive the government’s sovereign immunity for such harms,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the conservative majority. . . .
“The person who is subject to this, to this embarrassment, this humiliation, doesn’t have out-of-pocket costs, but is terribly distressed, nervous, anxious, and all the rest,” Ginsburg said [during the oral argument on the case]. “The act that the Congress is reaching, the impact is of that nature. I mean, pecuniary (monetary) damages ordinarily attend conduct that embarrasses, humiliates you, causes mental distress.“
To be fair, the decision did not cut off the rights of someone who is fired or suffers other tangible losses due to a similar violation of their privacy, but it establishes that there is no remedy if the government simply shames someone by revealing their most embarrassing medical records. Moreover, it is worth noting that the plaintiff in this case is not the most sympathetic possible victim — his HIV status was revealed after he illegally failed to disclose it on an application for a pilot’s license.
Nonetheless, the rule announced yesterday could have sweeping implications. Programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security Disability and the veterans health system necessarily will gather a great deal of medical information about many, many Americans — and there should be very real consequences if the agencies that run these programs fail to treat that very sensitive information with confidentiality and respect.