Lawsuit Alleges Background Checks are Civil Rights Violations

In a class action lawsuit filed against the District of Columbia, applicants for the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority allege that the agency's criminal background screening policy violates their civil rights. The suit claims that Metro has an "overly broad, unjustifiably rigid and unduly harsh" screening policy that disproportionately bars black workers from jobs with the agency. 

"The policy disqualifies many job applicants and employees based on criminal history that is not related to the job at issue or occurred so long ago - in some cases, 20 or 30 years in the past - that it is irrelevant to any fair determination of employee honesty, reliability or safety," according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

The District, along with 70-plus other municipalities across the nation, recently "banned the box" preventing employers from asking about prior convictions on job applications.

The plaintiffs allege they were fired or denied employment after a background investigation was conducted. The majority of the men were convicted of nonviolent criminal drug felonies, but a handful were found guilty of assault, robbery or brandishing a firearm.

African Americans account for more than 90% of drug convictions in the District, though usage rates are about the same for blacks and whites, according to a 2013 study by the Washington Lawyers' Committee. "We do believe that criminal background information can be a legitimate tool for employers, but it is just that WMATA's policy is unduly rigid and out of step with other jurisdictions," Handley said.

A Metro spokeswoman would not comment on the pending legislation. The agency changed their policy in 2011, eliminating the case-by-case approach to try to maintain safety for employees and the public.