Doe v. Attorney General of the US

941 F.2d 780 (1991)
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John Doe brought a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Agent Held alleging that they discriminated against him by ceasing to send agents to him for physical examinations because of his AIDS.

John Doe was a physician who gave physical examinations to FBI agents and to potential agents in the hiring process. Doe performed this service from 1984 to 1988, when someone informed the FBI that Doe had Kaposi’s sarcoma, a disease that often accompanies AIDS. He and the hospital told the FBI, without confirming that Doe had AIDS, that there was no danger to the patients as Doe acted in accordance with the Center for Disease Control’s and American Medical Association’s rules for infectious diseases.

Doe filed suit against the US Attorney General, the Director of the FBI, and Agent Held, seeking damages, attorney’s fees, and injunctions preventing the FBI from sending its agents to other caregivers and from revealing Doe’s illness. He argued that not sending agents to his clinic was discrimination due to his disability of having AIDS.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (the Act) says:

No otherwise qualified individual with handicaps in the United States … shall, solely by reason of his or her handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.

The district court granted an injunction ordering the FBI not to reveal Doe’s illness and to continue to send their agents to him. The FBI dramatically reduced the number of agent’s it sent to Doe. The Court ruled in favor of Agent Held on qualified immunity. Just after the district court’s decision, Doe’s illness caused him to become visually impaired and chronically fatigued. He was no longer able to work full time.

The Court held that the injunction against the FBI is moot due to Doe resigning his position within the clinic. Although Doe claimed that his colleagues could have been harmed by the loss of FBI clients, the hospital was not a part of the suit and their interests were not under consideration. Moreover, Doe was no longer working full time and he was unlikely to suffer from the FBI’s actions again.

The Court held that the district court had jurisdiction to hear this case. It found this discrimination case to be a tort claim because Doe’s injury should be characterized as a personal injury claim, so it was not under the jurisdiction of the Court of Claims, which has sole jurisdiction for contract disputes of the federal government.

The Court held that Doe can sue the government under the Act. The government asserted sovereign immunity, which would have made the FBI immune from a damages lawsuit. Statements made at a Congressional debate indicated that the legislature intended the Act to apply to federal agencies and to include a private right of action. In Section 505, Congress also extended certain rights under the Civil Rights Act to handicapped individuals under the Rehabilitation Act. Courts have interpreted this to imply a right of action for victims of discrimination. Generally, implied rights of action do not overcome sovereign immunity. In the Rehabilitation Act, however, Congress expressly stated that the Act included government agencies. In a similar situation involving an age discrimination statute, that statute was amended with a separate section exclusively discussing the statute’s application to the federal government. This meant that other sections of that statute did not apply to the federal government. The Court applied the reverse reasoning to the present case. Congress intended that the implied cause of action found under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also extend to the federal government since they did not create a separate section regarding the federal government. Section 505 states that the United States is not entitled to attorney’s fees, but otherwise all defendants are the same. Congress did not intend the federal government to be excluded if they state that the US is not entitled to attorney’s fees. Likewise, as the FBI was acting in a proprietary capacity, the sovereign immunity that applies to a regulator does not apply here.

The Court also held that Agent Held had qualified immunity from both of Doe’s claims. Doe’s medical information was protected by the Fifth Amendment right to privacy, but that protection is not absolute. Because the State had a legitimate interest in ensuring the health of the FBI agents, and Held intended to take precautions to ensure the confidentiality of Doe’s private information, Held acted reasonably under the circumstances. Likewise, Held had qualified immunity from the Section 504 claim, as Held could reasonably have believed that Doe was unqualified for the job because of the risk of infection that Doe may have posed for his patients.

Lehman makes clear that adding an entirely new statutory section to make federal defendants liable for discrimination indicates Congress's intent to distinguish between enforcement for federal as opposed to other defendants. The converse is implicit; by simply adding federal liability to a pre-existing section 504, Congress intended that there be no distinction in its enforcement against federal defendants.” (Pg. 9-10).

“While the Ninth Circuit had not ruled on the issue, it likewise should have been plain to a reasonable government official that information regarding an individual's HIV-status or AIDS diagnosis would fall within the ambit of the privacy protection afforded medical information.” (Pg. 15)

“It was also clear in 1988, however, that the privacy protection afforded medical information is not absolute; rather, it is a conditional right which may be infringed upon a showing of proper governmental interest… The government may seek and use information covered by the right to privacy if it can show that its use of the information would advance a legitimate state interest and that its actions are narrowly tailored to meet the legitimate interest.” (Pg. 16)