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Compliance Corner


District of Columbia: Limitations on Reporting Negative Information in Background Checks Used for Employment Purposes

Although several states have laws analogous to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the District of Columbia does not. As a rule, the District of Columbia follows the federal FCRA regarding the limitations on reporting negative information in background check reports used for employment purposes. However, there are three notable exceptions where district law differs from the FCRA regarding reporting criminal records:

(1)        Records of arrests or criminal accusations that did not result in a conviction cannot be reported (unless the charges are pending);

(2)        Inquiries about criminal convictions cannot be made unless a conditional offer of employment is made; and

(3)        Convictions with a completed sentence that is more than 10 years old cannot be reported.

The first two exceptions are found in the district’s Fair Criminal Record Screening Amendment Act of 2014 codified at Sections 32-1341 – 32-1346 of the Code of District of Columbia, and the third exception is found in Section 2–1402.66 of the district’s Human Rights Law.

UCC filing where the secured party is the IRS

If the IRS wants to file a statewide tax lien against a taxpayer’s personal property, the document evidencing the lien will be filed with the secretary of state’s office. Most states (if not all) index the IRS liens along with the UCC-1 financing statement liens. Although the tax lien is indexed with the UCC filings, the tax lien is not a UCC filing.

The reasoning for indexing the federal tax liens with the UCC-1 filings has to do with a potential bankruptcy filing by the debtor/taxpayer. In most cases, there will be an issue of which lien takes priority in the bankruptcy case. The date of filing with the secretary of state usually decides the issue of priority.

Are independent contractors considered employees under the FCRA?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its most recent staff report (in 2011) states that “employment purpose” is interpreted broadly and may apply to situations where individuals are not technically employees. Reports on consumers who are clearly not employees under traditional common law principles can nevertheless be construed as consumer reports for employment purposes.

It is up to the employer to determine the purpose of the background check based on its particular facts and circumstances. Some points to consider include:

1) Is the individual free from control and direction in connection with the performance of the service?

2) Is the service performed outside of the usual course of business of the employer?

3) Is the individual customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed?

If the answer is “yes,” then most likely a report on the individual would not be under the FCRA’s employment purpose.

While a few recent district court decisions have held that the FCRA employment purpose does not apply to contractors, the FTC has not budged on its stance that employees and nontraditional workers alike are protected under the FCRA.

Where there are gray areas, the conservative approach is to follow the employment purpose requirements but modify disclosure and authorization forms and other documents to reflect an independent contractor status.

New York Civil Cases and the RJI

State courts often have some quirky procedures, and the New York Supreme Court is no exception. Civil records from the New York Supreme Court typically include a reference to an “RJI” and whether it has been filed. What does “RJI” mean?

Definition: RJI is an abbreviation for “Request for Judicial Intervention.” It’s a form that is filed by either a plaintiff or defendant sometime after the summons and complaint is served on the defendant in a civil case.

Filing Effect: When an RJI is filed, the civil case is assigned to a judge.

What does this mean? When a plaintiff files a complaint in the New York Supreme Court to start a civil case, the court’s only action is to assign the case an index number. The court will not take any other action regarding the case – such as deciding a motion or order to show cause or hold a conference or trial – until either the plaintiff or defendant files an RJI. When the RJI is filed, the case is assigned randomly to a judge who will decide everything in the case until it is over.

How long will a case stay in the pre-RJI status? Because New York law does not specify a time limit for pre-RJI status, a civil case could be pending for years without any activity showing on the publicly available docket other than the filing and service of the summons and complaint.

That is the quirk in the New York Supreme Court civil case procedures – the possibility of a lengthy period of no case activity during the pre-RJI status.

To ensure that a civil case is timely prosecuted, many state courts assign a judge to a civil case when the summons and complaint are filed.

How to consider sex offender registry records in California (Updated)

For California employers concerned about hiring sex offenders, there are a few important points to keep in mind.

An employer has a duty to keep the workplace free of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination under state law. Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), an employer can face significant liability if it knowingly employs a sex offender and fails to take actions to protect its other employees from unlawful behavior by that person.

To avoid this problem, employers would like to know if they are hiring a registered sex offender. But how can they find out?

Since 2005, the state has operated a Megan’s Law website with a database to obtain access to the state’s list of more than 100,000 registered sex offenders. Created to help state residents better protect their families by being able to search for an individual registrant or by geographic location, the site (https://www.meganslaw.ca.gov/Default.aspx) contains the sex offender’s name, aliases, age, gender, race, address, physical description and, in some cases, a photograph.

While the site would appear to be a boon for employers, state law expressly forbids use of the state’s sex offender registry information for employment purposes. California Penal Code section 209.46(l)(2)(E) prohibits the use of information disclosed on the website for purposes relating to health insurance, insurance, loans, credit, education, housing and employment, among other uses.

Statutory exceptions provide for use “to protect a person at risk,” a term not defined by the Penal Code, as well as for employers required by law or authorized to request criminal history from the California Department of Justice. Examples of businesses that meet this standard may include child care centers, financial institutions and governmental agencies.

An employer who runs afoul of the Penal Code’s prohibition can face actual and exemplary damages, attorneys’ fees and a civil fine. Legislative history explains that the website attempts to protect the public while not inflicting additional punishment on registrants.

For employers trying to walk the fine line of protecting other employees and third parties, such as customers, from potential sex offender registrant employees while not violating the Penal Code, two alternate avenues exist to try to find out information about a sex offender: conviction records and employee/applicant self-disclosure.

Following applicable state and federal law, employers can conduct a criminal background check on applicants and employees and learn of a sex offense conviction. (However, convictions past the seven-year cut-off date in California may not appear on a background check report while the individual may still appear in the sex offender registry). An applicant or employee may also self-disclose a conviction.

Providing another wrinkle for California employers, the state’s Fair Chance Act took effect on January 1, 2018, mandating that employers with five or more employees must wait until after a conditional offer of employment has been made to ask any questions about criminal history. This includes inquiries about convictions, running a background check or other efforts to find out about an applicant’s criminal past.

If the employer decides not to hire the applicant, it must conduct an individualized assessment of the conviction at issue to evaluate whether it has a “direct and adverse relationship with the specific duties of the job that justify denying the applicant the position.” Other legal requirements, based on both state and federal law, must also be satisfied if an employer takes an adverse action on the basis of the background check (see our prior blog post (https://www.scherzer.com/reminder-to-california-employers-about-requirements-when-taking-adverse-action-based-on-a-criminal-record/) for more details).

What if an employer learns that an employee is a registered sex offender from another employee’s perusal of the Megan’s Law website? This situation could trigger liability under section 290.46 and employers should be careful to take action only after evaluating any potential risk the sex offender employee may pose to coworkers or customers, considering all the facts and circumstances.

Consent for International Searches

A basic principle of conducting international searches on an individual is that you need a lawful basis for processing personal data. This principle applies to both employment-purpose and commercial background checks.

Although the number and type of lawful bases vary from one country to another (especially with the enactment of new data protection and privacy laws in many countries over the last several years), a lawful basis for processing personal data common to all international searches is the consent of the individual search subject. From a compliance perspective, obtaining an individual’s consent for the searches is the best practice.

Other than the requirements that the subject’s express consent be unambiguous and freely given, there is no universally prescribed format or wording for an international consent form.

If the subject’s consent cannot be obtained, you can look to a country’s data protection and privacy laws to determine if a different legal basis may be applicable for processing personal data that does not require the subject’s consent. It is always up to the controller of the data to determine the appropriate legal basis for processing personal data.

For individuals located in the EU or UK, there are several legal bases that will satisfy the compliance requirements under the EU GDPR, the UK GDPR and the Data Protection Act of 2018 (UK) if consent cannot be obtained. The controller can still request these searches if it has a legitimate interest in obtaining the individual’s personal data or needs the data to perform a contract.

If the request for the searches is based on a legitimate interest or performance of a contract, the individual must receive a notice of the controller’s intention to process the data. Notice can be given in several different ways, including directly to the individual, in an engagement letter or similar document, or by publication on the client’s website. The way the controller gives notice is their decision.

Reporting Employment-related Civil Lawsuits

For employment-purpose reports, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and its state law counterparts  are the laws that most often deal with when determining whether certain information is or isn’t reportable. However, federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination can also limit what information can be included in these reports. This issue can arise when civil lawsuits are located in which a search subject has sued a former employer.

Although there are several types of federal laws dealing with workplace discrimination, taken together, these laws make it illegal to discriminate against someone (applicant or employee) because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to retaliate against a person because they complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

Providing any such information to a prospective employer in a background screening report could be a violation of anti-discrimination laws which are typically enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Decoding Criminal Case Dispositions – Part II

In the previous piece about decoding criminal case dispositions, we listed the most common dispositions (e.g., guilty, not guilty, dismissal, not prosecuted). Here is a list of less common criminal case dispositions, some of which may be only found in one jurisdiction:

Suspended Sentence: This means the court has delayed the sentencing for an offense pending the successful completion of a period of probation or successful completion of a treatment program. If the defendant does not break the law during that period and fulfills the conditions of the probation, the judge usually reduces the degree of the offense or may dismiss the case entirely. Until the sentence is reduced or dismissed, the case is considered pending.

Diversion/Deferred Prosecution: The court has delayed prosecution pending the successful completion of probation conditions, at which point the charges will be dismissed. Until charges are dismissed, they remain pending.

Adjudication Withheld: The judge orders probation but does not formally convict the defendant of a criminal offense.

Probation Before Judgment: In Maryland, probation before judgment (PBJ) is one type of disposition in a criminal case. For a defendant to receive a PBJ as a disposition, the defendant must make a plea of guilty; however, the court stays the finding of guilt and places the defendant on probation. If the defendant satisfactorily completes the probation terms, the guilty plea is stricken. PBJ is not a conviction in Maryland.

Stet Docket: The prosecutor may place the case on the stet docket. This is an indefinite postponement of a criminal case for up to three years. It is not a conviction. In Illinois, it is called “stricken off leave.”

ARD Program: Common in Pennsylvania, it stands for “Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program.” This program is given to the defendant in place of adjudication. If the defendant completes the program, the case is closed.

Conditional Discharge: In New York, a conditional discharge is part of a sentence. When the judge sentences the defendant to a conditional discharge, the judge will indicate the conditions that the defendant must meet for the sentence to be successfully completed.

In New Jersey, a conditional discharge is a type of diversionary treatment program offered to individuals charged with a disorderly person’s offense involving controlled dangerous substances (e.g., heroin, Xanax, Oxycontin, or drug paraphernalia). Upon completion of the terms and conditions of the treatment program, the treatment is terminated and the proceedings against the defendant are dismissed.

Civil Case Dispositions – Dismissals

A dismissal also can take one of two forms:

  • With prejudice – which means the plaintiff is barred from filing a new lawsuit based on the same claim.
  • Without prejudice – which means the plaintiff can still file a new lawsuit based on the same claim, such as when the defendant does not carry through on the terms of the settlement.

A dismissal can be made by the court, the plaintiff, or an agreement between both the plaintiff and defendant.

  • The court can dismiss a plaintiff’s case if the judge concludes the plaintiff’s case is without merit – often referred to as an involuntary dismissal.
  • A plaintiff can also dismiss a case – referred to as a voluntary dismissal.
  • When there is an out-of-court settlement, a dismissal will be filed by one of the parties stating the case is settled – often called a stipulation for dismissal or notice of dismissal. In New York, it is called a notice of discontinuance. (Settlement dismissals usually contain little or no information about the details of the settlement.)

Expungement of Criminal Convictions – California Style

Some states allow a defendant convicted of a crime to apply for a court order limiting public access to the conviction record or to restore rights and remove disabilities caused by the conviction. This type of order is commonly referred to as an expungement; however, the qualifications for obtaining an expungement and the effect of the expungement vary among the states that allow expungements.

California has an expungement procedure set forth in Penal Code 1203.4. If a defendant meets the qualification of Penal Code 1203.4, the court will allow the defendant to withdraw a plea of guilty or no contest, to reenter a plea of not guilty, and to have the case dismissed. The defendant is also relieved from many of the negative consequences of a criminal conviction.

When reviewing California criminal records showing a conviction, it is important to note if there is also a reference to a Penal Code 1203.4 dismissal because this can impact whether the record is reportable in a background check for a California employer. For example, California law does not allow the reporting of criminal records that result in a non-conviction in employment-purpose reports. Even though the record shows a conviction, the Penal Code 1203.4 dismissal effectively means the conviction never happened.

The reference to the code section will typically be found on the case docket, dated a year or so after the conviction date.

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