Showing posts with label background checks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label background checks. Show all posts

Monday, October 6, 2014

EEOC Says “Do as I Say” and “Pay no Attention to What I Do” in Background Check Battle

            In its litigation offensive against employers over the use of criminal/credit background checks in making employment decisions, the federal agency is getting put on the spot over its own employment practices in two high profile cases. 
 
            In earlier posts, I discussed the EEOC’s lawsuits against national retailer Dollar General, and car maker BMW Manufacturing Co., alleging that the employers’ criminal background check policies systematically discriminated against African-American job applicants or existing employees.
 
            In the Dollar General case, the EEOC is currently fighting a motion to compel filed by the retailer, in which Dollar General is asking a U.S. District Court in Illinois to force the anti-discrimination agency to disclose its own policies on using background checks and criminal histories in employment decisions.  In a South Carolina District Court, BMW also has filed a similar motion to compel, seeking all of the EEOC’s documents regarding its policies and guidelines for evaluating the criminal records of individuals applying to work for the federal agency.
 
            Not surprisingly, the EEOC is arguing to the Courts in both cases that it should not be required to turn over the information, claiming the agency’s own practices are irrelevant to the allegations against the two companies.  In response, BMW, echoing an earlier response by Dollar General, noted to the Court:
 
This is not the first time that the EEOC has refused to provide information about its own employee screening policies and procedures while claiming that the policies and procedures of others are        unlawful . . . [a]nd, in all cases, courts have concluded that the information is relevant to issues of business necessity and estoppel and have compelled the EEOC to provide it.

The other cases BMW and Dollar General are referring to likely include the crushing defeat handed to the EEOC earlier this year by the United States Court of Appeals in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Kaplan Higher Education Corporation.  In that case the EEOC sued the educational services company for implementing credit checks after discovering that some employees had stolen student’s financial aid payments. The credit check policy applied to job applicants seeking positions where they would have access to cash or financial information. The EEOC claimed the policy disproportionally impacted “more African-American applicants than white applicants.”
 
In its affirmation of the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the company, the Sixth Circuit blasted the EEOC’s disparate impact theory of liability. In ruling against the EEOC, the Sixth Circuit noted that pursuant to its own personnel handbook, the EEOC runs the very same type of credit checks on its employees because “[o]verdue just debts increase temptation to commit illegal or unethical acts as a means of gaining funds to meet financial obligations.” The court specifically and wryly noted that this was the very same reason that Kaplan adopted its policy. 



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

EEOC Tells Employers “If you like your Criminal Background Check…you Can Keep your Criminal Background Check”



 After suffering defeats over its efforts to enforce guidelines on the use of criminal background checks, it appears the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has launched its version of a charm offensive, while simultaneously girding for appellate battle over its latest courtroom loss.

At the recent American Bar Association's Annual Labor and Employment Conference, top EEOC officials argued that the federal agency was not trying to prevent employers from using background checks. The EEOC’s Senior Counsel James Paretti said the EEOC’s new guidelines merely seek a balance between employers’ interests in protecting property and ensuring personal safety, and making sure that minority job seekers are not subjected to disparate impact discrimination under Title VII.

Paretti denied that the EEOC was administratively seeking to create a new protected class of individuals with criminal records. Under the 2012 enforcement guidelines, the stated rationale for the EEOC’s position was that employers’ reliance on criminal records as a factor in hiring decisions disproportionately affects minorities, who statistically have higher rates of arrest and criminal conviction, i.e. disparate impact.

One continuing complaint about the EEOC’s guidelines is that it places significant costs on employers to create and maintain screening systems to evaluate whether an individual with a criminal record should be excluded on the basis of business necessity, using factors such as the severity of the crime, the period of time since conviction and the specific duties and responsibilities of the job sought. The guidelines further require employers to allow for an additional individualized assessment to those excluded by the initial screening, to explain why they should not be disqualified.

In what appears to be a new approach by the EEOC, Paretti strongly suggested that while employers are free to use background checks, they should not do them until after employers already have determined that the applicant meets all other job qualifications. In a less than subtle threat, EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum noted that the agency was looking into whether the EEOC would consider it a record-keeping violation if employers did not retain data on the disparate impact the an employer’s background screening had on minorities.

I have two thoughts on this. First, requiring employers to go through the time and expense of ensuring an applicant’s qualifications, and then leaving a background check until last, could result in wasted efforts and additional costs. For example, an employer could spend significant time and effort confirming that a candidate is ideally qualified to be a daycare administrator, only to find out at the end, per the EEOC’s suggestion, that the job candidate is a convicted sexual offender, and ineligible for such a position.

Second, the EEOC’s intimation that employers who use background checks could be subject to even more stringent record-keeping requirements, belies their claim that they are not trying to eliminate employers from using background checks.

In a related note, you may recall in my September 30, 2013 posting, the EEOC suffered a court defeat in the case of EEOC v. Freeman. In that case, a District Court in Maryland granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer Freeman, dismissing the plaintiff EEOC’s claim that Freeman’s background check policies violated Title VII. In the Court’s opinion, it issued a stinging rebuke to the EEOC for pursuing a disparate impact discrimination claim based on “a theory in search of facts to support it.”

On November 6, 2013, the EEOC appealed the District Court’s dismissal of the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Other than the loss of face over the Court’s rejection of their theory of liability, the EEOC has another strong motivation to appeal the adverse ruling. Following the ruling in its favor, Freeman filed a motion to require the EEOC to cover the company’s $1.2 million dollars in attorneys’ fees.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com

Monday, September 30, 2013

JAILHOUSE BLUES: EEOC TRIES TO ADDRESS CONCERNS OVER CONTROVERSIAL GUIDELINES ON CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has responded to complaints from nine state attorneys general, over the federal agency’s enforcement actions against employers who use criminal background checks in making employment decisions.

However, the EEOC’s assurances are unlikely to address the concerns raised by the states, and the Commission’s enforcement guidelines are already faring poorly in the courts.

It has been over a year since the EEOC issued its revised enforcement guidance on the extent to which employers may rely on an individual’s criminal history in making hiring or other employment selection decisions. The stricter guidelines made it clear that an improper reliance on such information may constitute a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). The stated rationale for the EEOC’s position is that employers’ reliance on criminal records as a factor in hiring decisions disproportionately affects minorities, who statistically have higher rates of arrest and criminal conviction. This theory of liability is called “disparate impact.”

The complaints from the states were prompted by two high profile lawsuits filed by the EEOC against BMW Manufacturing in South Carolina and Dollar General Stores, based in Illinois. In the suits, the EEOC alleged the companies discriminated against minorities by excluding them from employment opportunities based on improper reliance on criminal background checks. The states take issue with the Commission’s reliance on the disparate impact theory of liability and accuse the EEOC of improperly and illegitimately seeking to expand Title VII’s protections to "former criminals."

In its letter  responding to the complaints, the EEOC claims criticism of the new guidelines is based on a “misunderstanding” of how employers should implement the Commission’s suggestions. The EEOC also claims that the employee screening proposed by the guidelines should not result in "significant costs" to employers.

Although employers may continue to struggle to determine how to best comply with the guidance, as demonstrated by a recent U.S. District Court decision, they are also not defenseless to claims that their policies are discriminatory.

On August 9, 2013, a District Court in Maryland granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer Freeman, dismissing the plaintiff EEOC’s claim that Freeman’s background check policies violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(k). EEOC v. Freeman, Case No. RWT 09cv2573 (D. Md. Aug. 9, 2013). In so doing, the District Court recognized an employer’s policy of conducting criminal history or credit record background checks on potential employees as “a rational and legitimate component of a reasonable hiring process.” The District Court chastised the EEOC for pursuing a disparate impact discrimination claim based on “a theory in search of facts to support it,” disregarding the EEOC’s expert’s report as “an egregious example of scientific dishonesty.”

The EEOC’s expert’s report was pivotal to the success or failure of its claim. To prevail on a claim of disparate impact discrimination, a plaintiff must show that a certain class of applicants is disproportionately and adversely impacted by a particular employment practice on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(k). In its revised guidance, the EEOC essentially presumes that, based on national statistics, the use of criminal records to exclude individuals from employment has a disparate impact on individuals of certain races and national origins. This presumption, however, may not be sufficient in court where the plaintiff bears the burden of proving disparate impact by showing statistical disparities between the number of protected class members in the qualified applicant group and those in the relevant segment of the workforce. More often, the plaintiff’s burden requires reliable and accurate statistical analysis performed by a qualified expert.

Freeman challenged the EEOC’s use of an unreliable expert report to establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment discrimination and prevailed. The District Court, in excluding the EEOC’s expert’s report, found that the report was based upon an inaccurate database containing “cherry-picked” data and a “mind-boggling number of errors.” The District Court was also unpersuaded by the EEOC’s arguments that national statistics were sufficient to create an inference of disparate impact, noting that the national statistics relied upon by the EEOC were not representative of the relevant applicant pool.

With neither national statistics nor expert analysis to support its allegations of disparate impact, the District Court concluded that the EEOC’s claim could not survive and granted summary judgment in favor of Freeman. This decision strikes at one of the pillars for the EEOC in pursuing disparate impact litigation based on the use of criminal background checks; namely, the ability to move easily past (or effectively skip) the plaintiff’s burden to prove that a particular policy has a disparate impact on a class of applicants based on their race or other protected characteristic. The EEOC cannot rest on its presumption that the mere existence of a background check policy creates a disparate impact; it must prove the existence of this disparate impact with reliable expert testimony and statistics.

Despite the Freeman decision, employers should still expect the EEOC to rely upon its presumption of disparate impact during the investigation stage. What is less clear is what impact this decision may have on the two currently pending lawsuits the EEOC has filed against BMW and Dollar General. It is clear, though, that despite some direction from the federal courts, employers still continue to struggle when determining how to comply with the EEOC’s revised guidance more than a year after its issuance.

Notably, employers who operate in states that have their own requirements regarding the hiring of applicants with criminal backgrounds face a particularly arduous task. At least one federal court has recognized this dilemma but has concluded that “Title VII trumps state mandates.” See Waldon v. Cincinnati Public Schools, Case No. 1:12-CV-00677 (S.D. Ohio Apr. 24, 2013). In Waldon, the defendant employer Cincinnati Public Schools complied with a state law that required background checks of current school employees, even those whose duties did not involve the care, custody, or control of children. As a result, two long-term employees were fired, and they subsequently filed suit, alleging that their terminations were based on state legislation that had a racially discriminatory impact.

The school system moved to dismiss, asserting that it was simply following Ohio law by terminating the plaintiffs’ employment, that it maintained no particular employment practice that caused a disparate impact, and that it was a business necessity to follow Ohio law. A District Court in Ohio disagreed, recognizing that although it was clear that the school system did not intend to discriminate, it implemented a policy that had a disparate impact on African-Americans. The District Court did not believe that the school system was “compelled to implement the policy” and stated that the school system “could have raised questions with the state board of education regarding the stark disparity it confronted.”

The District Court’s suggested course of action for employers facing such a quandary is not particularly instructive, especially when multiple state leaders themselves have expressed to the EEOC the difficulty of complying with its guidance. On July 24, 2013, the attorneys general for nine states sent a letter to the EEOC expressing concerns about its revised guidance and the position the EEOC has taken in recent lawsuits regarding criminal background checks. View the letter here. The letter described the EEOC’s claim that its revised guidance document supersedes state and local hiring laws as “particularly egregious” and expressed concern that many of the states’ laws could be affected.

Thus, the propriety of criminal background check policies remains uncertain, and the EEOC’s pursuit of litigation has not added clarity. If anything, the EEOC has muddied the waters by pursuing cases with theories like it advanced in Freeman, which cause employers to wonder whether they should consider ignoring the EEOC, or expend resources trying to comply with guidance that has not been well received in federal court litigation, as well as a patchwork of competing state laws. Nevertheless, Freeman is but one case, state law continues to evolve, and the jury is still out on whether the states that have publicly criticized the EEOC’s guidance will do more than jawbone about it. In the meantime, employers seeking to navigate the various laws should continue to monitor the developments and revisit their policies and practices as the situation develops.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com.