Fed. Aviation Admin. v. Cooper

Decision Date28 March 2012
Docket NumberNo. 10–1024.,10–1024.
Citation132 S.Ct. 1441,566 U.S. 284,182 L.Ed.2d 497
Parties FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, et al., Petitioners v. Stanmore Cawthon COOPER.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Eric J. Feigin, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

Raymond A. Cardozo, San Francisco, CA, for Respondent.

Raymond A. Cardozo, Counsel of Record, James M. Wood, James C Martin, David J. Bird, Tiffany Renee Thomas, Thomas M. Pohl, Reed Smith LLP, San Francisco, CA, for Respondent.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Tony West, Assistant Attorney General, Edwin S. Kneedler, Deputy Solicitor General, Eric J. Feigin, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Mark B. Stern, Samantha L. Chaifetz, Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Privacy Act of 1974, codified in part at 5 U.S.C. § 552a, contains a comprehensive and detailed set of requirements for the management of confidential records held by Executive Branch agencies. If an agency fails to comply with those requirements "in such a way as to have an adverse effect on an individual," the Act authorizes the individual to bring a civil action against the agency. § 552a(g)(1)(D). For violations found to be "intentional or willful," the United States is liable for "actual damages." § 552a(g)(4)(A). In this case, we must decide whether the term "actual damages," as used in the Privacy Act, includes damages for mental or emotional distress. We hold that it does not.


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires pilots to obtain a pilot certificate and medical certificate as a precondition for operating an aircraft. 14 CFR § 61.3(a), (c) (2011). Pilots must periodically renew their medical certificates to ensure compliance with FAA medical standards. See § 61.23(d). When applying for renewal, pilots must disclose any illnesses, disabilities, or surgeries they have had, and they must identify any medications they are taking. See 14 CFR pt. 67.

Respondent Stanmore Cooper has been a private pilot since 1964. In 1985, he was diagnosed with a human immunodeficiency

virus (HIV) infection and began taking antiretroviral medication. At that time, the FAA did not issue medical certificates to persons with respondent's condition. Knowing that he would not qualify for renewal of his medical certificate, respondent initially grounded himself and chose not to apply. In 1994, however, he applied for and received a medical certificate, but he did so without disclosing his HIV status or his medication. He renewed his certificate in 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004, each time intentionally withholding information about his condition.

When respondent's health deteriorated in 1995, he applied for long-term disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. To substantiate his claim, he disclosed his HIV status to the Social Security Administration (SSA), which awarded him benefits for the year from August 1995 to August 1996.

In 2002, the Department of Transportation (DOT), the FAA's parent agency, launched a joint criminal investigation with the SSA, known as "Operation Safe Pilot," to identify medically unfit individuals who had obtained FAA certifications to fly. The DOT gave the SSA a list of names and other identifying information of 45,000 licensed pilots in northern California. The SSA then compared the list with its own records of benefit recipients and compiled a spreadsheet, which it gave to the DOT.

The spreadsheet revealed that respondent had a current medical certificate but had also received disability benefits. After reviewing respondent's FAA medical file and his SSA disability file, FAA flight surgeons determined in 2005 that the FAA would not have issued a medical certificate to respondent had it known his true medical condition.

When investigators confronted respondent with what had been discovered, he admitted that he had intentionally withheld from the FAA information about his HIV status and other relevant medical information. Because of these fraudulent omissions, the FAA revoked respondent's pilot certificate, and he was indicted on three counts of making false statements to a Government agency, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. Respondent ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of making and delivering a false official writing, in violation of § 1018. He was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $1,000.1

Claiming that the FAA, DOT, and SSA (hereinafter Government) violated the Privacy Act by sharing his records with one another, respondent filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. He alleged that the unlawful disclosure to the DOT of his confidential medical information, including his HIV status, had caused him "humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, fear of social ostracism, and other severe emotional distress." App. to Pet. for Cert. 120a. Notably, he did not allege any pecuniary or economic loss.

The District Court granted summary judgment against respondent. 816 F.Supp.2d 778, 781 (N.D.Cal.2008). The court concluded that the Government had violated the Privacy Act and that there was a triable issue of fact as to whether the violation was intentional or willful.2 But the court held that respondent could not recover damages because he alleged only mental and emotional harm, not economic loss. Finding that the term "actual damages" is "facially ambiguous," id., at 791, and relying on the sovereign immunity canon, which provides that waivers of sovereign immunity must be strictly construed in favor of the Government, the court concluded that the Act does not authorize the recovery of damages from the Government for nonpecuniary mental or emotional harm.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded. 622 F.3d 1016, 1024 (2010). The court acknowledged that the term "actual damages" is a " ‘chameleon’ " in that "its meaning changes with the specific statute in which it is found." Id., at 1029. But the court nevertheless held that, as used in the Privacy Act, the term includes damages for mental and emotional distress. Looking to what it described as "[i]ntrinsic" and "[e]xtrinsic" sources, id., at 1028, 1031, the court concluded that the meaning of "actual damages" in the Privacy Act is not ambiguous and that "a construction that limits recovery to pecuniary loss" is not "plausible," id., at 1034.

The Government petitioned for rehearing or rehearing en banc, but a divided court denied the petition. Id., at 1019. The Government then petitioned for certiorari, and we granted review. 564 U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 3025, 180 L.Ed.2d 843 (2011).


Because respondent seeks to recover monetary compensation from the Government for mental and emotional harm, we must decide whether the civil remedies provision of the Privacy Act waives the Government's sovereign immunity with respect to such a recovery.


We have said on many occasions that a waiver of sovereign immunity must be "unequivocally expressed" in statutory text. See, e.g., Lane v. Peña, 518 U.S. 187, 192, 116 S.Ct. 2092, 135 L.Ed.2d 486 (1996) ; United States v. Nordic Village, Inc., 503 U.S. 30, 33, 112 S.Ct. 1011, 117 L.Ed.2d 181 (1992) ; Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 95, 111 S.Ct. 453, 112 L.Ed.2d 435 (1990). Legislative history cannot supply a waiver that is not clearly evident from the language of the statute. Lane, supra, at 192, 116 S.Ct. 2092. Any ambiguities in the statutory language are to be construed in favor of immunity, United States v. Williams, 514 U.S. 527, 531, 115 S.Ct. 1611, 131 L.Ed.2d 608 (1995), so that the Government's consent to be sued is never enlarged beyond what a fair reading of the text requires, Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U.S. 680, 685–686, 103 S.Ct. 3274, 77 L.Ed.2d 938 (1983) (citing Eastern Transp. Co. v. United States, 272 U.S. 675, 686, 47 S.Ct. 289, 71 L.Ed. 472 (1927) ). Ambiguity exists if there is a plausible interpretation of the statute that would not authorize money damages against the Government. Nordic Village,supra, at 34, 37, 112 S.Ct. 1011.

The question that confronts us here is not whether Congress has consented to be sued for damages under the Privacy Act. That much is clear from the statute, which expressly authorizes recovery from the Government for "actual damages." Rather, the question at issue concerns the scope of that waiver. For the same reason that we refuse to enforce a waiver that is not unambiguously expressed in the statute, we also construe any ambiguities in the scope of a waiver in favor of the sovereign. Lane, supra, at 192, 116 S.Ct. 2092.

Although this canon of interpretation requires an unmistakable statutory expression of congressional intent to waive the Government's immunity, Congress need not state its intent in any particular way. We have never required that Congress use magic words. To the contrary, we have observed that the sovereign immunity canon "is a tool for interpreting the law" and that it does not "displac[e] the other traditional tools of statutory construction." Richlin Security Service Co. v. Chertoff, 553 U.S. 571, 589, 128 S.Ct. 2007, 170 L.Ed.2d 960 (2008). What we thus require is that the scope of Congress' waiver be clearly discernable from the statutory text in light of traditional interpretive tools. If it is not, then we take the interpretation most favorable to the Government.


The civil remedies provision of the Privacy Act provides that, for any "intentional or willful" refusal or failure to comply with the Act, the United States shall be liable for "actual damages sustained by the individual as a result of the refusal or failure, but in no case shall a person entitled to recovery receive less than the sum of $1,000." 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)(4)(A). Because Congress did not define "actual damages," respondent urges us to rely on the ordinary meaning of the word "actual" as it is...

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