Quick look at Doe v. Chao
Background: The pseudonymous plaintiff Buck Doe and other miners
seeking federal black-lung benefits claimed the U.S. Labor Department wrongly
made public their Social Security numbers to attorneys and insurance companies
in violation of the federal Privacy Act. The miners sought damages from the
government for the violation, but lower courts ruled that they needed to prove
they suffered “actual damage” from the disclosure before they could revcover
Ruling: The majority found that plaintiffs must prove “some actual
damages” to qualify for the minimum award of $1,000 for improper government
disclosure of information protected by the Privacy Act.
Verbatim: “The 'entitle[ment] to recovery' necessary to qualify
for the $1,000 minimum is not shown merely by an intentional or willful
violation of the Act producing some adverse effect. The statute guarantees
$1,000 only to plaintiffs who have suffered some actual damages.
Line-up: Justice David Souter wrote for the 6-3 majority, which
included Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor,
Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Dissenting: Justices Ruth
Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer.
First Amendment impact: This was a rare case in which advocates of
freedom of information and the press were on the same side as the government in
hoping that the Supreme Court would not make it too easy to penalize government
agencies for Privacy Act violations. Their concern was that government employees
would be reluctant to disclose even appropriately public information if they
feared that damage awards could be easily won against them. Today's ruling will
likely be welcomed by the FOI community.
lower court ruling.