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Fifth Circuit Slams the Door on Criminal Record Discrimination Lawsuit

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has rejected an unsuccessful job applicant’s claim that he was denied employment because of his criminal record. 

The Plaintiff in Noris Rogers v. Pearland School District unsuccessfully argued that his history of felony convictions for drug offenses, including the sale of heroin, amounted to race discrimination under a disparate impact theory of liability.
In recent years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has filed a number of high-profile lawsuits, taking the position that utilizing criminal background checks in making employment decisions may be a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.         The stated rationale for EEOC’s stance is that employers’ reliance on criminal records as a factor in hiring decisions disproportionately affects, or has a “disparate impact” on African-Americans and Hispanics, who statistically have higher rates of arrest and criminal conviction. 
In Rogers, the African-American Plaintiff applied for a job as a master electrician for a Texas school district.  On the application, Rogers responded “No” to all questions regarding criminal history, including whether he had ever been convicted of or pled guilty to a criminal offense, and gave his consent for a criminal background check. The background check revealed that Rogers had multiple felony drug convictions. When asked by the school district’s human resources director about the incorrect information, Rogers became angry, raised his voice and had to be asked to leave. The school district later hired an African-American male for the position.
A few months later, the successful applicant resigned and the position again became available.  Rogers reapplied, this time disclosing his criminal record on the application.  The school district did not hire Rogers because of his “lack of candor” in disclosing his criminal record the first time.  In his lawsuit, Plaintiff claimed the real reason was race discrimination based on his drug arrests, and not on the fact he lied on his job application.  The Texas trial court granted the school district’s summary judgment motion, dismissing the case, and Rogers appealed the ruling to the Fifth Circuit.
In holding that the trial court was correct in dismissing the case, the Fifth Circuit rejected Rogers’ claim that the School District maintains a policy of “excluding from consideration for employment all persons who have been convicted of a felony.”While the Fifth Circuit noted that under the school district’s actual policy, a felony conviction would be an adverse factor in an application, it is  “not an automatic bar to employment.” In addition, the record shows that the School District follows procedures that require the opportunity for an in-person meeting with any applicant to discuss the applicant’s criminal history. The record also shows that the School District recently hired several employees who had felony and misdemeanor convictions.  The Court discounted Rogers’ comparator of a white school district employee who failed to disclose on a job application a misdemeanor charge of marihuana possession thirty years earlier.
While not discussed in detail in the Fifth Circuit’s Opinion, it appears the school district’s policy was in line with the recently updated EEOC guidelines, which put theburden on employers to develop screening guidelines to individually assess each applicant/employee to determine whether a criminal history may be used as a factor in any employment decision.  Under the EEOC’s guidelines, for an employer to avoid Title VII disparate impact liability for excluding an individual with a criminal record, the employers must show that any reliance on a criminal history is job related and consistent with business necessity.  In doing so, an employer must show that it considered three factors: (1) the nature and gravity of the offense, (2) the amount of time since the conviction, and (3) the relevance of the offense to the type of job being sought. 
The case highlights the need for employers to have such screening guidelines in place, proper documentation to support any employment decision based on a criminal history, and not to have any blanket-ban on employing individual with a criminal history.




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