Justices make it harder to recover damages in privacy lawsuits

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

WASHINGTON — In the first of two privacy-related rulings expected this term, the Supreme Court yesterday made it harder to recover damages from government agencies for revealing personal information about individuals.

The Court’s 6-3 ruling in Doe v. Chao says that people who sue the government for violating the Privacy Act must prove they suffered “actual damages” from government disclosure before they can win monetary damages under the 1974 law.

Freedom-of-information advocates were relieved by the ruling. They had worried that if the Court ruled differently, government officials would become reluctant to reveal even legitimately public information.

“We’re pleased,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which filed a brief in the case. “Our entire interest in this case was based on fear of what would happen to the free flow of information out of the government if executive branch workers were afraid of violating the Privacy Act every time they responded to an FOIA request. This should help prevent the ‘chilling effect’ so often encountered when agencies are responding to FOIA requests.”

The case represented a rare instance in which free-press advocates were on the same side as the government, which also wanted to limit the ability to sue government agencies.

The Court heard arguments in the case on Dec. 3, the same day as another privacy-related case that has not yet been decided. In Office of Independent Counsel v. Favish, the Court was asked to interpret the scope of the provision of the Freedom of Information Act under which the government can withhold documents intruding on personal privacy.

Doe v. Chao arose when a group of coal miners sued the Labor Department for revealing their Social Security numbers in the course of administering benefits they received under a program that aids those suffering from black lung disease. The government admitted that it had disclosed the numbers too widely, to attorneys and insurance companies among others.

The Privacy Act provides for fines of $1,000 or more for “intentional or willful” violations of the law, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs had to show they suffered “actual damages” from the disclosures. Emotional distress, the appeals court said, was not enough.

Justice David Souter, writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, agreed. “The statute guarantees $1,000 only to plaintiffs who have suffered some actual damages,” Souter wrote. In a footnote, Souter said the Court was not ruling on what exactly constituted actual damages under the law. Souter’s majority opinion focuses exclusively on interpreting the meaning of the law, and offers little language about the privacy interests of the miners.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said anyone suffering an “adverse effect” from violation of the law, including emotional distress, should be able to recover damages. She also said the majority ruling “invites claimants to arrange or manufacture” actual damages in order to win money from the government. Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer joined her dissent.

Breyer also wrote a dissent emphasizing that even under Ginsburg’s interpretation of the law, “the government need not fear liability based upon a technical, accidental or good faith violation” of the law.

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