Mini FCRA update: Georgia enacts new law, California law mired in uncertainty

Enacted in 1970, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) provides federal regulation of consumer reporting agencies that provide consumer reports to third parties.

In the 45 years since the FCRA took effect, several states have passed their own version of the statute to provide additional protections for consumers. Colloquially referred to as “mini” FCRAs, the laws can be found in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington.

Joining the group: Georgia, where House Bill 328 took effect on July 1. The new law applies to consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) that “conduct business” within the state, defined as those entities that “provide information to any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or any other group however organized that is domiciled within this state or whose principal place of business” is located within Georgia’s borders.

A CRA encompasses any person or entity “which, for monetary fees or dues or on a cooperative nonprofit basis, regularly engages in whole or in part in the practice of assembling or evaluating consumer credit information or other information on consumers for the purpose of furnishing consumer reports to third parties.”

For its part, a consumer report broadly includes “any written, oral, or other communication of any information bearing on a consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living which is used or expected to be used or collected in whole or in part for the purpose of serving as a factor in establishing the consumer’s eligibility for purposes of credit, insurance, or employment.”

As it closely tracks the federal FCRA, Georgia’s law provides that a CRA that furnishes consumer reports for employment purposes in compliance with the federal statute will be in compliance with the state version.

While Georgia’s new law already took effect, other states have struggled with application of their mini FCRAs.

For example, in 2013, a federal court judge California ruled that one of the state’s two FCRA corrollaries, the Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (ICRAA), was unconstitutionally vague in Roe v. LexisNexis Risk Solutions, Inc. The case involved an anonymous plaintiff who sued when she failed to obtain employment.  She argued she didn’t get the job as a result of an allegedly inaccurate background check furnished by the defendant to her prospective employer in violation of both the FCRA and the ICRAA.

The defendant argued that the ICRAA was unconstitutionally vague as applied and the court agreed. In addition to the FCRA and the ICRAA, California had previously enacted the Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies Act (CCRAA), a law that governs consumer credit checks. The interplay between the CCRAA and ICRAA resulted in confusion for covered entities, the court found, as criminal background information about consumers was regulated by both laws, leaving companies uncertain about which statute’s requirements actually applied.

Although the plaintiff appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate panel dismissed the appeal for procedural reasons; on remand, the federal district court later dismissed the case with prejudice in December 2013. However, the opinion in Roe remains valid law in the state, leaving a shadow of uncertainty hanging over the ICRAA.

Read Georgia’s House Bill 328.

Read Roe v. LexisNexis Risk Solutions, Inc.

September 23rd, 2015|Employment Decisions, FCRA|

California’s marijuana laws present challenges for employers

Even for those not partaking in marijuana, the various California laws regulating its use can be confusing – particularly for employers.

The trend in state legislatures to permit the recreational and/or medicinal use of marijuana began with California’s Compassionate Use Act in 1996, which allowed state residents to use the drug for medical purposes and decriminalized possession of less than 28 grams. Complicating the matter, however: marijuana use remains prohibited by federal law.

With limited use of marijuana legal in the state, how can employers find out about a worker’s use of the drug or limit it without running afoul of state law?

Employers have two options, either try to get their hands on historical information, such as criminal convictions, or seek out current input via drug testing.

Criminal history related to drugs in many instances is off-limits for employers. Job applicants cannot be required to disclose an arrest that did not result in a conviction or participation in a pretrial or post-trial diversion program. Any criminal history that has been expunged, sealed, or dismissed will be unavailable as are marijuana-related convictions dating back more than two years.

While California has not banned the box for private employers, local jurisdictions such as San Francisco have, requiring employers to wait until after a live interview or determining that an applicant meets the qualifications for the position before inquiring into criminal history. Background checks – whether performed in-house or by a third party – require compliance with federal law (the Fair Credit and Reporting Act (FCRA) as well as California’s counterpart, the Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (although the legality of the state statute is unclear, see story below for more detail). And such investigations into applicants’ history are a current target for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – which has filed multiple lawsuits (http://www.scherzer.com/eeoc-loses-again-in-challenge-to-background-checks/) against employers alleging their background checks constitute disparate impact discrimination against protected groups like African-Americans – and a popular basis for class actions. Recent cases have settled with multi-million awards, including a $2.5 million payout by Domino’s Pizza and a $6.8 million deal between Publix Super Markets and a class of applicants alleging the company violated the FCRA.

Drug tests can be viable option for employers. Once a job offer has been made, an employer may require an applicant to pass a drug test as a condition of employment (as long as all potential employees are subject to the same requirement). After a worker has been hired, drug tests may be used if an employer has a reasonable suspicion that the employee is under the influence. Certain jobs – such as those in the transportation industry like truck drivers – may permit such testing more freely. If a test comes back positive, employers do have the discretion to discipline, terminate, or choose not to hire an applicant even if the individual legally holds a medical marijuana card issued by the state. In addition, despite the requirements under the Americans With Disabilities Act and California state law to provide reasonable accommodations to employees considered disabled, neither federal nor state law requires employers to permit marijuana use as such an accommodation.

September 23rd, 2015|Criminal Activity, Employment Decisions|

Company fined $600,000 for I-9 violations

A recent decision from the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer provides an important reminder: keep up on I-9 compliance or face a sizable civil penalty.

Pursuant to 8 U.S.C. Section 1324(a)(1)(B) of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, employers must examine and document the identity and immigration documents of employees. Since the Act’s 1986 enactment, the Employment Eligibility Verification Form, colloquially known as the I-9, is used to verify the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for work in the United States. Both the employee and the employer must complete the form. In addition, employers must examine the worker’s documentation establishing his or her identity and employment authorization to determine if the documents “reasonably appear to be genuine.”

In 2013, the agency transitioned employers to use of a new form with additional fields (including employee telephone number and e-mail address), new formatting, and clarified instructions. Failure to complete an I-9 form can lead to an enforcement action from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with penalties ranging from $110 to $1,100 per form.

Recently, a California-based event design and construction company learned that lesson the hard way when the agency charged the employer with 818 violations of the statute, seeking $812,665.25 in civil penalties.

The company’s “employment verification procedures are sufficiently defective to foreclose a claim of either good faith or substantial compliance,” Administrative Law Judge Ellen K. Thomas wrote, finding that the company engaged in the majority of the violations alleged.

The judge found most of the violations occurred in Section 2 of the I-9, which requires a representative from the employer to review the documents presented by the employee to prove identity and work authorization and then sign, under penalty of perjury, that he or she reviewed the documents. ICE found that 797 of the company’s I-9 forms were left blank. Characterizing the employer attestation in Section 2 as “the very heart” of the verification process, the ALJ fined Hartmann $700 for each violation, or $557,900.

Judge Thomas found other serious violations in the company’s I-9 forms, including failing to ensure that in Section 1 employees checked a box attesting to status as a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident, or alien authorized to work (with the need to add an alien registration number if either lawful permanent resident or alien authorized to work were selected). Many employees also failed to sign Section 1, the court found, and the company neglected to have employees list a driver’s license expiration date in Section 2.

The company tried to mitigate the fine by arguing that it improved its processes after receiving notice from ICE, but the judge was not persuaded, particularly as the company made no effort until after the federal agency came knocking. “[T]he company does appear to need additional motivation to conform its employment verification processes to what the law requires,” Judge Thomas wrote, issuing a total fine of $605,250.

To avoid a similar fate, compliance with I-9 requirements should be taken seriously and employers should ensure that the appropriate forms are being correctly filled out.

Read the decision.

September 23rd, 2015|Employment Decisions|

Right to be Forgotten movement gains backers in the U.S.

Seeking to expand recognition of the Right to be Forgotten to the United States, a consumer group has filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission (the “FTC”) requesting that Google be required to remove links upon request.

Last year, the European Court of Justice ordered Google to remove links about the financial history of a Spanish attorney, finding that the links to stories about his debts were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive,” establishing the Right to be Forgotten (“RTBF”). Over the last 12 months, Google has received 274,462 removal requests and evaluated 997,008 URLs for removal from its search results.

In the hopes of bringing the RTBF to the United States, Consumer Watchdog recently filed a petition with the FTC. The group argued that by providing the ability to request removal of links to European consumers in Europe, Google engaged in unfair and deceptive practices in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Not offering Americans the right to request removal – while providing it to millions of users across Europe – is unfair, the group argued to the FTC. And Google’s claims in its privacy policy that “[p]rotecting the privacy and security” of customer information “is a top priority,” are deceptive because the company limits protections by denying the RTBF, the consumer group added.

Consumer Watchdog listed several examples of U.S. citizens who have been harmed without the RTBF in this country, ranging from a guidance counselor who was fired after photos of her as a lingerie model from 20 years prior surfaced online to a woman whose mug shot appeared online after she was arrested defending herself against an abusive boyfriend. The group also told the FTC that Google already removes certain types of links from search results in this country (such as revenge porn), meaning it has the capability to remove other links as well.

“As clearly demonstrated by its willingness to remove links to certain information when requested in the United States, Google could easily offer the RTBF or the Right To Relevancy request option to Americans,” Consumer Watchdog wrote. “It unfairly and deceptively opts not to do so.”

The RTBF doesn’t implicate First Amendment concerns or constitute censorship, the group said, because the content remains on the Internet. The right “simply allows a person to request that links from their name to data that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive be removed from search results,” according to the petition. “Americans deserve the same ability to make such a privacy-protecting request and have it honored.”

Further, the right isn’t automatic. “Removal won’t always happen, but the balance Google has found between privacy and the public’s right to know demonstrates Google can make the RTBF or Right To Relevancy work in the United States,” Consumer Watchdog concluded.

Meanwhile, the issue of expanding the RTBF has also come up in Europe. In July, a French regulatory authority ordered Google to remove all the links from its search pages including Google.com in the U.S. – not just the European pages. Google refused to comply and filed an appeal of the order. “We believe that no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access,” Google’s global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer wrote on the company’s blog.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s petition to the FTC.

September 23rd, 2015|Criminal Activity, Educational Series, Employment Decisions|

DOL offers new guidance on old question of employee or independent contractor

For the last few years, one of the top priorities for the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) has been the fight against the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. In the agency’s latest effort, it released new guidance for employers when classifying workers, using six factors to consider.

The Administrator’s Interpretation 2015-1 focuses on the issue of whether the worker is “economically dependent on the employer or truly in business for him or herself.” The more the worker relies upon an employer for income stream, business skills, and supplies, the more likely he or she is an employee – and entitled to all of the benefits included in that classification, such as overtime or worker’s compensation.

In “The Application of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s ‘Suffer or Permit’ Standard in the Identification of Employees Who Are Misclassified as Independent Contractors,” the DOL started with the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (the “FLSA”) definition of “employ:” “to suffer or permit to work.” Under this broad definition, “most workers are employees,” the agency stated unequivocally.

With that in mind, the DOL turned to the six factors of the economic realities test commonly used by courts when considering whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. The agency noted that the labels used by an employer are not determinative of the nature of the relationship and neither are tax filings.

“All of the factors must be considered in each case, and no one factor (particularly the control factor) is determinative of whether a worker is an employee,” the DOL wrote. “Moreover, the factors themselves should not be applied in a mechanical fashion, but with an understanding that the factors are indicators of the broader concept of economic dependence. Ultimately, the goal is not simply to tally which factors are met, but to determine whether the worker is economically dependent on the employer (and thus its employee) or is really in business for him or herself (and thus its independent contractor).”

Is the work an integral part of the employer’s business? If a worker is economically dependent upon the employer, he or she is likely an employee, while a “true independent contractor’s work, on the other hand, is unlikely to be integral to the employer’s business.” Recognizing the increasing use of telecommuting and other flexible work schedules in today’s economy, the DOL added that work can be integral even if it is performed away from the employer’s premises.

The second factor considers whether the worker’s managerial skill affects the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss. A worker in business for him or herself not only has the opportunity to profit but also to experience a loss, the DOL explained. The question isn’t whether a worker is on the job more hours or earns more money but if the worker makes decisions and exercises skill and initiative – hiring other workers or advertising his services, for example – to move the business forward.

In the third factor, the worker’s relative investment as compared to the employer’s investment should be evaluated. “The worker should make some investment (and therefore undertake at least some risk for a loss) in order for there to be an indication that he or she is an independent business,” according to the guidance. Simply purchasing tools or other equipment may not constitute an investment, the agency added, when considered relative to the employer’s investment.

Fourth: does the work performed require special skill and initiative? Technical skills alone will not indicate that a worker is an independent contractor, the DOL said. Instead, business skills, judgment, and initiative should be evaluated. For example, a highly skilled carpenter who provides his services to a construction company may simply be providing skilled labor as an employee. On the other hand, if the carpenter decides which jobs to take, advertises his services, and determines what materials to order, he is more likely to be classified as an independent contractor.

The length of the relationship between the worker and the employer is the focus of factor five. A permanent or indefinite relationship signals an employee, the DOL said. “After all, a worker who is truly in business for him or herself will eschew a permanent or indefinite relationship with an employer and the dependence that comes with such permanence or indefiniteness,” the agency wrote. The length of time should be considered in the context of the industry, however – seasonal positions may not always indicate an independent contractor relationship, for example.

In the sixth factor, the DOL advised employers to think about control. While the control factor should not receive more weight than the other factors in the economic realities test, the nature and degree of the employer’s control should be considered in light of the ultimate determination whether the worker is economically dependent on the employer or an independent contractor. Employers do not need to look over a worker’s shoulder every day to make them an employee, the guidance cautioned, as technological advancements permit many employees to work off-site and unsupervised.

Employers should review the new guidance and be prepared for agency oversight on the issue of worker classification, keeping in mind that the DOL repeatedly emphasized that “most workers are employees.”

Read the Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2015-1.

September 23rd, 2015|Educational Series, Employment Decisions|

Revised FCRA Summary of Rights form released

Did you know that a revised version of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (the “FCRA”) Summary of Rights form was released a few months ago?

If the answer is “no,” don’t worry. The form was not published in the Federal Register and appeared under the radar without an announcement.

The FCRA mandates that employers are required to provide a disclosure and obtain written authorization from any applicant or employee prior to conducting a background check. If the employer decides to take an “adverse action” against the applicant or employee based on the results of the background check, the employer must provide the individual with a copy of the background check and the Summary of Rights form under the FCRA.

The revised form does not require a lot of adjustments for employers. Some of the government addresses found on the last page were changed and all references to Maine’s laws were removed. Earlier this year, the state repealed its mini-FCRA to adopt the federal FCRA.

View the new Summary of Rights form.

September 23rd, 2015|Educational Series, Employment Decisions|

Florida court allows FCRA suit against Whole Foods to move forward

Reinforcing the importance of complying with even the most technical FCRA requirements, a federal court in Florida allowed a former employee to move forward with his suit against Whole Foods Market Group.

In the putative class action, the plaintiff, who was terminated in June 2013 after the employer conducted a background check on plaintiff and other existing employees, charges that Whole Foods violated the FCRA, and specifically, points to the forms the plaintiff signed when he applied for employment. A “Disclosure Statement” provided: “By this document [Whole Foods] discloses to you that a consumer report regarding your credit history, criminal history and other background information and/or an investigative consumer report containing information as to your character, general reputation, personal characteristics and/or mode of living may be obtained from personal interviews or other sources in connection with your application for any purpose at any time during your employment.”

The plaintiff was also given a “Consent and Release of Information” form, which stated: “I further understand and authorize [Whole Foods] or those authorized by them to procure a consumer report on me as part of a process of consideration as an employee … I release all parties from liability for any damages which may result from the disclosure of any information outlined herein.”

Although Whole Foods intended for the Disclosure Statement to satisfy Section 1681(b)(2)(A)(i) of the FCRA and each form was a separate single page document, the simultaneous presentation of the consent form rendered the disclosure meaningless, the plaintiff argued. Whole Foods knew that it was required to provide a stand-alone form, the plaintiff added, citing FCRA-related articles posted online by the third-party the company used to run the background checks.

The court agreed. “Based on the allegations, with all inferences drawn in favor of plaintiff, if both the disclosure and the consent forms combined and read as one document with the waiver and release included simultaneously with the disclosure, the complaint states a claim for relief,” the judge said, denying Whole Foods’ motion to dismiss the suit. The court also allowed the plaintiff’s contention that Whole Foods “willfully” violated the FCRA to move forward. Under the statute, reckless and knowing violations constitute willful violations, the court noted, and the plaintiff presented sufficient allegations that the defendant knew it was required to provide a stand-alone form separate from the employment application and yet failed to do so.

“The allegations that defendant had access to legal advice and guidance from the FTC yet it knew that its conduct was inconsistent with that guidance and the plain terms of the statute, are sufficient to withstand attack at this stage of the proceedings on a motion to dismiss,” the judge wrote.

The decision provides an important reminder to employers that class actions alleging technical violations of the FCRA, particularly Section 1681(b)(2)(A)(i), remain popular with plaintiffs with statutory damages from $100 to $1,000 for a willful violation available.

Whole Foods is facing an identical suit in California federal court while other companies have settled similar cases for significant amounts, such as the recent deal Publix Super Markets struck with a class in Tennessee federal court for $6.8 million, a $2.5 million payout by Domino’s Pizza, and a settlement agreement for $3 million between grocery chain Food Lion and job applicants.

Read the court order here.

June 12th, 2015|Employment Decisions, FCRA, Judgment|

EEOC loses – again – in challenge to background checks

In the latest blow to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (the “EEOC”) attempts to regulate employers’ use of background checks, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a case in a scathing opinion that expressed disappointment in the agency’s litigation conduct.

The controversy began in April 2012, when the EEOC released guidance on the issue of criminal background checks for employers. The “Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964” emphasized that while the use of criminal history does not violate the statute per se, an employer may run afoul of the law if the checks result in systemic discrimination based on a protected category like race, color, national origin, religion, or sex.

As an alternative, the agency suggested employers strive to perform individualized assessments of prospective employees, and consider factors such as the nature of the crime and its relation to the potential job, as well as the individual’s rehabilitation efforts and the length of time that has passed since the conviction.

The EEOC then followed up with multiple lawsuits alleging that certain employers engaged in the discriminatory use of background checks, disproportionately screening out African-American workers in cases filed against BMW Manufacturing in South Carolina, Dollar General in Illinois, Kaplan Higher Education Company in Ohio, and Freeman Company in Maryland.

To date, all of the lawsuits have been dismissed and the agency has faced criticism about its efforts to pursue such cases from both industry and lawmakers. The most recent critic: the Fourth Circuit.

In the agency’s case against Freeman Company, the EEOC alleged the company’s use of criminal background checks for all applicants and credit checks for “credit sensitive” positions had an unlawful disparate impact on black and male job applicants. To support its case, the agency produced expert reports by an industrial/organizational psychologist. But the federal district court granted summary judgment for Freeman, finding the psychologist’s reports “rife with analytical errors” and “completely unreliable.”

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the ruling, identifying “an alarming number of errors and analytical fallacies” in the reports, “making it impossible to rely on any of his conclusions.” Freeman provided complete background screening logs for thousands of applicants to the EEOC but the psychologist “cherry-picked” data, the court said, omitting information from half of the company’s branch offices while purporting to analyze all the background checks, and further failed to utilize an appropriate sample size, selecting the vast majority of data to focus on before October 14, 2008.

Although the relevant time period extended to August 31, 2011 and Freeman conducted over 1,500 criminal checks and more than 300 credit reviews between October 14, 2008 and August 31, 2011, the psychologist used data from only 19 applicants during that time, just one of whom passed the check.

A “mind-boggling number of errors and unexplained discrepancies” existed in the psychologist’s database, the panel added, rejecting the EEOC’s argument that the mistakes originated in Freeman’s data. The psychologist introduced the errors, the court said, and further managed to introduce fresh errors when he tried to supplement his original reports with corrections.

“The sheer number of mistakes and omissions in the analysis renders it “outside the range where experts might reasonably differ,” the three-judge panel wrote. One of the panelists added a concurring opinion expressing concern with the “EEOC’s disappointing litigation conduct” and continued efforts to defend the psychologist’s work despite other courts reaching similar conclusions about his reports.

“The Commission’s conduct in this case suggets that its exercise of vigilance has been lacking,” according to the concurring opinion. “It would serve the agency well in the future to reconsider how it might better discharge the responsibilities delegated to it or face consquences for failing to do so.”

With public criticism, zero litigation victories, and a counterargument from one defendant that its background check procedures are the same as those conducted by the agency itself, the Fourth Circuit’s decision does not bode well for the future of EEOC challenges to background checks. That said, employers should still be cautious and utilize background reports in a non-discriminatory manner.

Read the EEOC guidance.

Read the opinion in EEOC v. Freeman.

May 8th, 2015|Employment Decisions|

No number, no lawsuit

Tossing a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that an applicant could not sue after refusing to provide his Social Security number to a prospective employer. The plaintiff, an applicant for a position with an energy company, claimed that he had no number because he “disclaimed and disavowed it” on account of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

The company’s refusal to hire the plaintiff violated Title VII and Ohio state law, the complaint charged, requesting both injunctive relief in the form of a job and monetary damages. A federal district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the federal appellate panel affirmed.

Courts considering the issue apply a two-step analysis, the Sixth Circuit explained. First, the court determines whether the plaintiff established a “prima facie case of religious discrimination,” which requires proof that the plaintiff “(1) holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) has informed the employer about the conflicts; and (3) was discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.” If the plaintiff manages to establish a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to show it could not “reasonably accommodate” the religious beliefs without “undue hardship.”

This suit failed under the first step, the panel said, because the Internal Revenue Code mandates that employers collect and provide the Social Security numbers of their employees. Because the company’s collection of the plaintiff’s number was a “requirement imposed by law” and not an “employment requirement,” the court had no need to consider the sincerity of the plaintiff’s beliefs.

The panel also noted that every other federal appellate court to consider the issue has concluded “that Title VII does not require an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if such accommodation would violate a federal statute,” citing decisions from the Fourth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, as well as federal district courts in Michigan and Virginia.

All of the courts have arrived “at the same, sensible conclusion: ‘[A]n employer is not liable under Title VII when accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs would require the employer to violate federal … law,” the Sixth Circuit wrote. “This conclusion is consistent with Title VII’s text, which says nothing that might license an employer to disregard other federal statutes in the name of reasonably accommodating an employee’s religious practices.”

For employers, the decision provides even greater peace of mind. With five federal appellate courts in agreement that a religious discrimination claim will not stand against an employer that complies with federal requirements to collect an applicant’s Social Security number, companies do not have to worry about the merits of a Title VII lawsuit under such circumstances.

Read the opinion.

May 8th, 2015|Employment Decisions, Judgment, Legislation|

Asset searches: who can get bank information and why

Accessing bank account information can be vitally important, particularly for those engaged in a lending transaction seeking to fulfill due diligence requirements. But getting your hands on the information can be a challenge.

Asset searches are not illegal. However, certain methods to obtain bank or investment account information can be, such as pretext calling. The simplest way to obtain financial information is via the account holder, a designated representative, or a party with a valid court order. The first two options are unlikely to be forthcoming. As for the third choice, obtaining a court order to access such information can be time-consuming and costly.

Access to financial information is regulated by both federal and state laws. For example, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) prohibits obtaining customer information from a financial institution under false pretenses and imposes an obligation on financial institutions to protect customer information. Generally, a “customer” is defined as an individual consuming goods or services for personal or household use, although some authorities have included sole proprietors, partnerships of five or fewer, and other small businesses to receive the same privacy protections. For businesses, the issue of data protection is governed by contract. While the consumer protection provisions of laws like the GLBA would not apply, it does not mean that financial institutions can freely share their information.

International asset searches present their own set of problems. Other countries – particularly those in the European Union – have strict data privacy laws that prohibit any access to personal information as well as the transfer of data across national borders. Federal law also comes into play, with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act presenting potential liability issues if an entity searching for asset information obtained the information by illegal means (such as bribing a banking or government official).

What about judgments? While a judgment cannot by itself force a bank or brokerage firm to disclose account information, it allows a creditor to use the court to seize the debtor’s assets. With a judgment in hand, a creditor can file for an order of examination which will require the debtor to disclose – under oath – the location of assets, details about income, or other relevant information. However, the judicial process of obtaining a judgment reveals the intent of the creditor and can give the debtor time to empty an account or move assets prior to the court entering an order. Judgments can also be tricky to enforce. State law governs judgments with specifics varying in each jurisdiction. In California, a creditor must obtain a writ of execution directing a levying officer (usually a sheriff) to serve the writ on the named institution. The institution must then freeze the specific account(s) or, in certain situations, turn over the balance in the account. Serving a writ of execution in California was recently simplified to allow service on a “central location” designated by a bank with nine or more locations in the state or accept service at any branch without such a designated office.

Long-arm statutes can be used to reach accounts in a jurisdiction other than where the judgment originated. A debtor can object to the attempt and courts typically impose a test of whether the debtor or third party (like the bank or brokerage holding the assets) has connections with the court or creditor, which, at a minimum, can delay the process and make it more expensive.

For assets like stocks, bonds, and commodities, creditors can again obtain a court order that can liquidate the account into cash to be turned over to the creditor. It should be noted that certain types of accounts (notably retirement accounts) cannot be reached, even in cases of fraud. To preserve an account balance, a creditor can serve a levy on a brokerage in order to put a hold on the account while waiting for a court order.

Public records – ranging from property records to litigation – can also help locate or confirm a debtor’s assets. One important consideration: it is essential to vet any company that purports to be able to obtain financial account information. Many misleading claims and offers about obtaining such information can be found on the Internet and creditors should ensure that any data obtained was in accordance with applicable law and regulations.

February 23rd, 2015|Criminal Activity, Employment Decisions, Guidence|