Posts Tagged ‘disparate impact claims’

The recent case of Waldon v. Cincinnati Public Schools, before the Southern District of Ohio, exemplifies the frustration many employers might be feeling over the use of criminal background checks.  For those not in the know, criminal background checks spawn a host of issues.  For example, if you don’t use the checks, will you be sued for negligent hiring?; or if you use the criminal background checks will you be sued for discrimination? It’s enough to make your head spin, and as evidenced below, bright-line rules regarding the use of criminal background checks, simply don’t work.

In the case of Waldon, 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 and to terminate any employee convicted of any of a certain crimes, no matter how far in the past the crime may have occurred and no matter how little the crime related to the present readiness of the particular employee to provide services safely and with excellence.

In seemingly earnest compliance with the state law, the Cincinnati Public Schools terminated ten employees with criminal convictions based on the state law mandate.  Nine of the ten employees were African American.  Two of the fired employees, Waldon and Britton, sued the school district alleging that the state law had a racially discriminatory impact on African Americans in violation of  Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Ohio state law.

Undoubtedly, the broad language of the state law that mandated the termination of employees (even those who had no contact with children) for certain convictions no matter how far in the past and regardless of how the crime related to the employee’s ability to perform his/or her job, would produce absurd results.  And it did.  For example, Walton, one of the terminated employees, had been found guilty of felonious assault in 1977 and incarcerated for two years before the school district’s civil service office wrote in support of his parole and offered him employment in 1980.  For nearly 30 years Waldon worked without incident for the school district before he was terminated from his position as a systems monitor based on his decades old conviction.  Moreover, during his tenure with the school district, he never had contact with children.  Britton, the other plaintiff, was convicted in 1983 for acting as a go-between in the purchase and sale of $5 worth of marijuana.  Despite this conviction, she had worked for the school district as an instructional assistant for 18 years without incident before she was terminated based on her decades old and relatively minor conviction.

In Waldon, the court found that the plaintiffs presented sufficient facts to support their disparate impact claims under Title VII and Ohio state law because the state law disproportionately affected African Americans.  Moreover, the school district failed to demonstrate a business necessity for following the state law requiring the discharge of employees of convicted of certain crimes.

Although the school district argued that the court should dismiss the complaint because the school district merely followed state law in firing Waldon and Britton, in a harsh statement for employers, the court stated that compliance with state law is no defense because a violation is a violation.  A state law cannot trump the purpose of Title VII.

In the Waldon case, it mattered little that the school district was just following the state law and did not intend to discriminate because intent is irrelevant in disparate impact cases where the courts look at whether facially neutral employment practices have a disproportionately negative effect on a certain protected group that cannot be justified by “business necessity.”  In this case, the school district could not show that the plaintiffs posed an obvious risk to school children based on their past convictions and therefore could not establish a “business necessity.”

The court unsympathetically concluded that once the school district saw that nine of the ten employees being fired were African American, it was not compelled to follow the state law because Title VII trumps state mandates, and that the school district should have raised questions with the state board of education regarding the disparity.

This is a harsh case for employers because the court makes it clear that employers cannot blindly rely on state law mandates regarding the use of criminal background checks.  Rather, employers must evaluate whether seemingly neutral state law mandates have a discriminatory impact.  The employment and labor law attorneys at Harmon & Davies, P.C. are here to navigate employers through these sometimes treacherous waters.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

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