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Spring 2004-13 Plaintiff must prove actual damages under Privacy Act of 1974

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Number 55
Spring 2004

Plaintiff must prove actual damages under Privacy Act of 1974

The $1,000 minimum compensation for damages granted by the Privacy Act of 1974 is only available to plaintiffs who suffered actual damages. Doe v. Chao, Secretary of Labor (U.S. Supreme Court No. 02-1377, February 24, 2004).

An anonymous worker, John Doe, filed a black lung benefits claim with the Department of Labor. The agency used his Social Security number to identify his claim on official agency documents, including a multi-captioned hearing notice that was sent to a group of claimants, their employers, and lawyers. Doe and other black lung claimants sued the Department, claiming that such disclosures violated the Privacy Act of 1974. The Government stipulated to an order prohibiting future publication of Social Security numbers on multi-captioned hearing notices, and the parties moved for summary judgment. The District Court entered judgment against all plaintiffs but Doe, finding that they had raised no issues of cognizable harm. However, the court accepted Doe's un-controverted testimony about his distress on learning of the improper disclosure, granted him summary judgment, and awarded him $1,000, the minimum statutory damages award under 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)(4).

On appeal

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed on Doe's claim, holding that the $1,000 minimum is available only to plaintiffs who suffer actual damages, and that Doe had not raised a triable issue of fact about such damages, having submitted no corroboration for his emotional distress claim. Doe filed a Petition for Certiorari in the Supreme Court of the United States.

In a six to three decision, the Supreme Court sustained the opinion of the Fourth Circuit and held that plaintiffs must prove some actual damages to qualify for the minimum statutory award.

In its opinion the Supreme Court pointed out that the Privacy Act gives agencies detailed instructions for managing their records and provides various sorts of civil reliefs to persons aggrieved by the government's failure to comply with the Act's requirements. Doe's claim falls within a catchall category for someone who suffers an "adverse effect" from a failure not otherwise specified in the remedial section of the Act. If a court determines that the agency acted in an "intentional or willful" manner, the government is liable for "actual damages sustained by the individual . . . , but in no case shall a person entitled to recovery receive less than . . .$1,000."

Straightforward analysis

The Court found that a straightforward textual analysis supports the government's position that the minimum guarantee goes only to victims who prove some damages.

Also, the Court ruled that an un-codified provision of the Privacy Act demonstrates that Congress left for another day the question whether to authorize general damages, i.e., an award calculated without reference to specific harm. In fact, drafting history shows that Congress cut out the very language in the bill that would have authorized such damages.

Subsequent statutes

The Court also rejected Doe's argument that points to subsequently enacted statutes with remedial provisions similar to § 552a(g)(4). The Court refused to adopt such analogies. The Court refused to override a reasonable interpretation of a statute that can be gleaned from its language and legislative history prior to its enactment. In addition, the text of one provision pointed out by the petitioner is too far different from the Privacy Act's language to serve as a sound basis for analogy.


© 2004 Goldman Antonetti
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