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HIV-positive man loses suit for sharing information about illness

For those people in Michigan dealing with an HIV diagnosis it can be a very private and sensitive matter. Aside from the general social stigma regarding the illness, those with positive diagnoses may have trouble obtaining employment or the necessary certifications to remain employed.

This is the case for one man who recently sued the federal government for sharing personal information regarding his HIV diagnosis. The man was receiving Social Security disability benefits for his condition, but withheld information about his diagnosis when trying to maintain licensure with the Federal Aviation Administration.

In order to be a certified to fly, pilots must be considered physically fit enough to operate an airplane. For multiple years, the man did not disclose his HIV-positive status to the FAA, but notified the Social Security Administration to receive benefits. When investigating how pilots obtained clean bills of health from their doctors the FAA received the man's Social Security disability records from the SSA.

The man then sued the federal government for the emotional distress associated with the improper sharing of private medical records between the two agencies. However, his claim was ultimately denied when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the man could not receive damages for emotional distress under the terms of federal privacy laws. Despite the court's ruling against the man, three members of the court dissented by saying that the inability to sue for damages weakens the spirit of privacy statutes.

At one point, the FAA denied HIV-positive individuals from being licensed pilots, so the man felt the need to hide his diagnosis in order to maintain his certification. As a result of his failure to disclose his diagnosis to the FAA, the man was charged with a misdemeanor for making a false statement.

Clearly, receiving a positive diagnosis for HIV is a very daunting prospect for anyone. The virus acts differently for everyone who contracts it, so becoming debilitated by the disease may happen at any time. It's important to make sure that those dealing with devastating illnesses, such as HIV and AIDS, receive the care and benefits they need to live comfortably. Furthermore, those dealing with a positive diagnosis deserve to have their privacy respected in order to carry out their day-to-day life.

Source: The Washington Post, "Supreme Court says man can't sue government for emotional damage over records sharing," March 28, 2012

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