Is medical information that individuals disclose to the Social Security Administration’s disability program confidential? A man who lost a professional license after his medical condition was disclosed to his employer by the SSA sued the federal government for violating the Privacy Act.
The man, Stanmore Cooper, a pilot, applied to the SSA disability benefits program in order to receive medical benefits. In his application, he revealed that he was HIV positive, information that he withheld from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Cooper’s name came to the attention of the FAA during a criminal investigation aimed at evaluating pilots’ medical fitness to fly. The agency was trying to determine if pilots were seeing different doctors, one to certify that they had a disability for the SSA and another to certify that they were medically fit to fly.
The investigation, dubbed “Operation Safe Pilot”, involved the SSA providing the medical records for about 45,000 Northern California residents to the FAA. All the individuals involved had applied for pilot licenses.
Cooper was called out in the investigation as a pilot who was receiving disability benefits from SSA while he held an FAA license to fly. Upon finding out that he was HIV positive, the FAA took away his pilot license. It was standard practice to deny licenses to HIV positive pilots until recently. After being caught, Cooper admitted that he withheld information about his HIV positive medical condition from the FAA on license applications in 1998 and 2004.
Cooper pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false statement to the FAA and paid a fine. However, he went on to sue the federal government for violating the privacy act, and a U.S. District Court determined that he could recover damages over the unlawful disclosure of his medical information.