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Policy: Law

Class action filed against Washington Metro over background checks of African Americans

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DC,Law,Race and Diversity,Legal Newsline

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has been named in a lawsuit after the class members claim its background check policies are unfair.

Erick Little, Lawrence Whitted, Timothy McClough, Gerald Tucker, LeRoy Quarles, Fitzgerald Stoney, Marcello Virgil, Leon McKenzie and Louia McKenzie claim Metro, Diamond Transportation, Executive Personnel Services Inc. and First Transit Inc. refused to hire qualified job applicants due to a range of criminal convictions without considering timelines or jobs in question, according to a complaint filed July 30 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse

E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse

The plaintiffs claim the defendants’ actions have disproportionately affected African American applicants.

“This class action lawsuit calls on WMATA and its contractors to adopt a fair and nondiscriminatory background screening policy,” the complaint states. “While criminal background information can be a legitimate tool for employers when screening job applicants, WMATA’s background check policy is overly broad, unjustifiably rigid and unduly harsh.”

It results in the unnecessary firing of current employees who have a demonstrated track record of successful employment and the denial of employment to applicants who are well-qualified to perform the jobs at issue safely and effectively, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs claim 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.

“For example, under WMATA’s policy, a person who has ever had a felony conviction for drug possession is permanently disqualified from employment in a wide range of jobs, including bus operator and custodian, even if the applicant has been drug-free and held a steady job for ten or 20 years,” the complaint states.

WMATA’s policy leads to grossly unfair results for many qualified, hard-working applicants and employees, including the plaintiffs, according to the suit.

Little, 47, who worked as a bus driver for Montgomery County’s Ride-On Transportation Service, had his job offer as a bus operator for WMATA withdrawn based on a conviction for simple drug possession that was more than 25 years old and stemmed from an incident when he was just 19 years old, the complaint states.

Whitted, 58, was fired from his job as a MetroAccess driver for a WMATA contractor, even though he had performed the job successfully for more than five years, based on a drug-related conviction from 1989, which he had disclosed when he initially applied for the job, according to the suit.

Virgil, 45, was fired from his job as a custodian with a WMATA contractor and denied an equivalent position with WMATA, which came with better pay and benefits, based on a drug-related conviction that was 15 years old, even though he disclosed the conviction before he started work for the contractor and his supervisors had encouraged him to apply for the position at WMATA, the complaint says.

“WMATA’s policy is far more restrictive than necessary to protect public safety,” the complaint states. “The federal Transportation Security Administration, which hires individuals to screen passengers at airport checkpoints, uses background screening standards that are less onerous than WMATA’s.”

The plaintiffs claim several of WMATA’s member jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, have more flexible background screening policies than WMATA does, and other transit authorities, such as the Chicago Transit Authority, have policies that affirmatively seek to hire individuals with criminal records.

The plaintiffs bring the action as a class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) and (3) for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act of 1977

The WMATA class and contractor classes consist of all terminated employees, employees deterred from applying for internal job openings, employees deterred from taking medical or personal leave and applicants denied employment based on WMATA’s criminal background check policy.

The plaintiffs are seeking class certification; an order restoring class members to their rightful positions and requiring applicants be given priority consideration for hire in job vacancies; back pay and benefits; compensatory damages; front pay; and pre- and post-judgment interest. They are being represented by John A. Freedman and Brandie N. Weddle of Arnold & Porter LLP; Sherrilyn Ifill, Christina A. Swarns, ReNika C. Moore, Ria Tabacco Mar and Johnathan J. Smith of NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund; and Matthew Handley and Dennis Corkery of Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

The case has been assigned to District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer.

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia case number: 1:14-cv-01289

From Legal Newsline: Kyla Asbury can be reached at classactions@legalnewsline.com.

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