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Third Circuit holds that applicants must get chance to review criminal history reports before being denied employment based on the reports

This week, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals resurrected a class action lawsuit which alleges that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) when it refused to hire applicants based on their criminal history reports without first giving the applicants a chance to review the reports.  The FCRA regulates how companies may use consumer reports for a variety of purposes, including hiring.  And the FCRA has a broad definition of the term “consumer report” which includes criminal history reports.  Under the FCRA, employers must provide copies of criminal history reports to applicants and give them notices about their rights under the FCRA before they refuse to hire them based on their criminal history reports.

SEPTA argued that the plaintiffs in this case suffered no actual harm from SEPTA’s violation of the FCRA because the plaintiffs do not dispute the accuracy of the criminal history reports and the crimes they committed disqualified them from employment.  The Third Circuit rejected this argument, in part, because the FCRA not only protects an applicant from suffering harm due to an erroneous consumer report; it also gives him the opportunity “to advocate for [the report] to be used fairly—such as by explaining why true but negative information is irrelevant to his fitness for the job.”

The trial court had dismissed the case and, as such, this Third Circuit victory breathed new life into the case.  Ossai Miazad, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “this is a significant victory for our clients, who first challenged SEPTA’s unfair background check hiring policies and practices in 2016.  This ruling is an important affirmation that a defendant like SEPTA cannot block access to the court and cannot avoid scrutiny of their actual employment practices that serve to unfairly deny employment to individuals like our clients who have paid their debt to society.”

The use of criminal history reports has received a lot of attention in recent years.  The criminal justice system disproportionately leads to arrests and convictions of African American and Hispanic people.  Thus, the use of criminal history information to make employment decisions will often disproportionately disadvantage African American and Hispanic people.  For this reason, many jurisdictions have implemented “ban the box” laws which restrict when employers may ask for criminal history information during hiring processes.  This case shows that workers can also use the FCRA to restrict how companies can use criminal history reports in the hiring process.