I present on the topic of background checks often, and when it comes to Q&A time, I almost always get the question (or some variation of it): "How does Title VII come into play when an employer has state law requirements regarding criminal background checks?" In Waldon v. Cincinnati Public Schools, No. 1:12-CV-00677 (S.D. Ohio Apr. 23, 2013), the Southern District of Ohio shed some light on this particular employer predicament and demonstrates the potential for employment discrimination liability for employers who have overly broad exclusionary hiring policies based on past criminal conduct, even when those policies are required by state law.

In 2007, the Ohio legislature amended a state law to require criminal background checks of all current public school employees, including those not responsible for the care, custody, or control of children. (HB 190, eff. Nov. 14, 2007) According to the law, if an employee had been convicted of any of a number of specified crimes, no matter how far in the past they occurred, nor how little they related to the employee’s present qualifications, the law required the employer to terminate the employee.

To comply with the law, in 2008 the Cincinnati Public Schools terminated 10 employees with criminal convictions, nine of which were African American. Two of those nine, Gregory Waldon, who was found guilty of felonious assault in 1979 and incarcerated for two years, and Eartha Britton, who was convicted in 1983 of acting as a go-between in a $5.00 marijuana deal, sued the school district alleging that the state law had a racially discriminatory impact on African Americans contrary to Title VII and comparable Ohio state law.

The Defendant filed a motion to dismiss asking the court to throw out Plaintiffs’ suit claiming it simply followed Ohio law when it terminated their employment. The Defendant contended it maintained no particular employment practice that caused a disparate impact, and that it was a business necessity for it to follow Ohio law and that to force it to litigate the suit would force it to defend a criminal records policy it had no role in creating.

The terminated employees argued that Title VII trumps state law, such that their terminations were "unlawful employment practices" based on disparate impact" and that compliance with the state law was no defense because a violation is a violation. In Plaintiffs’ view, "whether Defendant was complying in good faith to state law goes to the remedy the Court should ultimately craft, and not to whether the terminations were in violation of Title VII."

The court found that Plaintiff "adequately plead[ed] a case of disparate impact" and that there was "no question that Defendant did not intend to discriminate"; however, the court went on to note that "intent is irrelevant" in a disparate impact case and the practice it "implemented had a greater impact of African-Americans than others."

The biggest issue on briefing was whether Plaintiffs could even attack Defendant’s facially-neutral policy based on the state law mandate. The court rejected "Defendant’s view that the state law must ‘purport’ to discrimination in order to be trumped by Title VII. Such a view would gut the purpose of Title VII …." Quoting Title VII, the court went on to note that an employer may defend against a prima facie showing of disparate impact only by showing that the challenged practice is "job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity".


Continue Reading Pick Your Poison – Violate State or Federal Law? Court Finds That Complying with State Law On Employee Criminal Background Checks Is Not a Defense to a Title VII Disparate Impact Claim

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