The following is a summary of how the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) applies to criminal background checks, written by Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. More detailed information about FCRA’s interpretation and enforcement is available in this 2011 FTC report. Current information about FCRA’s enforcement as applied to criminal records will appear in the upcoming third edition of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law Policy and Practice.
Where a criminal record report is provided to an employer by a credit reporting agency (“CRA”), the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq, is applicable. See Beaudette, FTC Informal Staff Opinion Letter, June 9, 1998 (available here). FCRA creates obligations both on CRAs preparing criminal background reports and on employers using them.
Among the duties of CRAs compiling criminal background reports for employers are the following:
- CRAs may not report arrests or other adverse information (other than convictions of crimes) which are more than seven years old, provided that the report does not concern employment of an individual who has an annual salary that is $75,000 or more. 15 U.S.C. §§ 1681c(a)(5), 1681c(b)(3).
- CRAs must use “reasonable procedures” to insure “maximum possible accuracy” of the information in the report. 15 U.S.C. §1681e(b).
- Elements of cause of action: (1) Inaccurate information in report; (2) inaccuracy due to CRA’s failure to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy; (3) consumer suffered injury (can include emotional injury); and (4) injury was caused by inaccurate entry. Crane v. Trans Union, 282 F. Supp. 2d 311 (E.D. Pa. 2003)(Dalzell) (citing Philin v. Trans Union Corp., 101 F. 3d 957, 963 (3d Cir. 1996)).
- A CRA reporting public record information for employment purposes which “is likely to have an adverse effect on the consumer’s ability to obtain employment” must either notify the person that the public record information is being reported and provide the name and address of the person who is requesting the information at the time that the information is provider to the user or the CRA must maintain strict procedures to insure that the information it reports is complete and up to date. 15 U.S.C. §1681k.
Pennsylvania has been active in recent years in expanding its judicial relief mechanisms, though it still has a long way to go to catch up to states like Kentucky, Missouri, and New Jersey, which have in the past 12 months extended their expungement laws to some felonies and/or reduced waiting periods. No one has been more active and effective in the effort to increase the availability of “clean slate” judicial remedies than Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Sharon has written a comprehensive guide to existing authorities on expungement and sealing in her state, which also discusses pending bills that would extend these laws. The abstract follows:
A few days ago we received the following communique from Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, announcing a major litigation victory that will be welcome news across the country. On December 30 a unanimous 7-judge appeals court struck down the provisions of the Pennsylvania Older Americans Protective Services Act barring employment of people with criminal records in long-term health care facilities such as nursing homes and home health care agencies. The provisions declared unconstitutional on due process grounds law include lifetime employment bans for offenses as minor as misdemeanor theft, which Sharon notes “prevented many Pennsylvanians with criminal records from working in that entire burgeoning field.” The decision in Peake v. Commonwealth is here, and NPR’s report on the decision is here.
In an article published this week by the Shriver Center, Preventing Background Screeners from Reporting Expunged Criminal Cases, Sharon Dietrich offers helpful advice for advocates on to how to combat the problem posed by the reporting of expunged and sealed criminal records by private commercial background screening services. Her advice is based partly on her own organization’s participation in litigation under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) against one of the country’s larger background screeners — an experience that she recounts in detail.
Dietrich identifies the problem of improper private reporting of expunged records as one that “threatens to undermine the whole strategy of broadening expungement as a remedy for the harm of collateral consequences.” She describes the underlying issue as follows:
[T]he commercial background-screening industry, which runs the lion’s share of the background checks obtained by employers and landlords, sometimes reports those expunged cases long after they have been removed from the public record. Companies in the background-screening industry typically maintain their own privately held databases of criminal cases from which they generate background checks. When updating their data from public sources (often state courts), these screeners often do not use methods to determine whether cases that were reported by their sources have been removed (i.e., expunged or sealed), and they continue to report them.
In a recent series of posts on The Volokh Conspiracy blog promoting his book The Eternal Criminal Record, Professor James Jacobs “[speaks] strongly against a public policy that coerces private employers to ignore job applicants’ criminal records while leaving them to cover the costs imposed by ex-offender employees.” His arguments suggest that employers are being saddled with such costs (for which no proof whatsoever is presented) because of social activism on behalf of people with criminal records. In fact, modest legal protections for people with criminal records derive from longstanding employment discrimination law principles.