SUPREME COURT DECIDES AGAINST PILOT; DECISION SUGGESTS THE NEED FOR INFORMATION SERVICE

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SyllabusFEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, ET AL., PETITIONERS v. STANMORE CAWTHON COOPERON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

The pilot in this case contracted HIV and then was awarded disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. The FAA and its parent organization, the DoT, initiated an intergovernmental request for records that would demonstrate that pilots were disqualified from holding medical certificates. Mr. Cooper’s name was identified by the SSA and the FAA took the appropriate actions. He lost his license, pled to a crime, but then sued the federal government for unlawful disclosure of his information. Five Justices determined that his claim was limited to actual and not nonmonetary damages.

Given the potential for a pilot with a disqualifying medical condition to crash and thus to injure others, such a request would seem to be a valid sharing of information within the federal government. When an individual claims disability with one federal organization and simultaneously does not disclose that information to another, that person should be held responsible for such dissembling and the matching of those records should be permitted. Mr. Cooper was found guilty of delivering a false written statement. The Supreme Court held, in a footnote (fn2) that was not a holding in this case, that the FAA could have requested the precise data at issue here and if they followed the proper procedures.

The DoT/FAA were found to failed to meet those procedures and under the Privacy Act were liable for damages. This case was about whether the plaintiff was able to recover actual or consequential damages. If you are fascinated by such esoteric subjects as “express waiver of sovereign immunity” or “nominal or exemplary or punitive damages”, the link is included and you can read on.

From an aviation safety and fairness standpoint FAA v. Cooper, this decision points out a need. The federal government may be immune but it is not infallible. Errors have been known to creep into federal records and the transmission of such erroneous information from one federal organization to another would not be disclosed to the public. The existence of such mistakes is the reason why Credit Information, as we are reminded by the repetitive advertisements for such services, must be made available to individuals requesting the data. As AOPA counsel Kathleen Yodice urged, we agree that the FAA should start an NPRM process that would define the procedures to disclose such information before the agency takes emergency and nonemergency certificate revocations.

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