Doe v. Chao, 540 U.S. 614 (2004)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 02-1377. Argued December 3, 2003—Decided February 24, 2004

After petitioner 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 multicaptioned 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 multicaptioned 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 uncontroverted 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). 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.

Held: Plaintiffs must prove some actual damages to qualify for the minimum statutory award. Pp. 618-627. (a) The Privacy Act gives agencies detailed instructions for managing their records and provides various sorts of civil relief 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. 552a(g)(1)(D). If a court determines in a subsection (g)(1)(D) suit 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." 552a(g)(4)(A). Pp. 618-619. (b) A straightforward textual analysis supports the Government's position that the minimum guarantee goes only to victims who prove some actual damages. By the time the statute guarantees the $1,000 minimum, it not only has confined eligibility to victims of adverse effects caused by intentional or willful actions, but has provided expressly for

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