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.