D.C. Metro to Pay $6.5M in Background Check Settlement

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By Jon Steingart

The public transit agency in Washington, D.C., agreed to pay $6.5 million as part of a settlement in a lawsuit alleging its criminal background check policy was racially discriminatory.

“Employers seem to be in a rush to adopt criminal background checks without thinking carefully what the purpose is and what the effect is going to be,” according to Rachel Kleinman, an attorney for applicants who were denied jobs with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority because of their criminal histories.

“If you are going to institute a criminal background check policy, you need to make sure the discriminatory effect is as minimal as possible,” she told Bloomberg Law.

WMATA in 2017 adopted a revised screening policy after being hit with the lawsuit in 2014. The revision reduced the list of offenses that result in automatic disqualification for applicants and gave hiring managers the ability to assess whether a conviction has any relationship to the job being filled. Mitigating factors, such as length of time since the offense and evidence of rehabilitation, are also considered, said Kleinman, who is with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York.

“Anyone who is presumptively disqualified based on the new grid will have an opportunity to receive an individualized assessment and present evidence,” she said.

About 1,800 people may be eligible to share in the settlement, according to an estimate from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which also represented the applicants.

A WMATA representative wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Revised Policy to Remain At Least One Year

The Dec. 7 preliminary approval by Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia means the lead plaintiffs will have an opportunity to notify others who may be affected by the lawsuit and give them an opportunity to join the settlement. Collyer said it satisfies a rule that a class action settlement must be a fair, reasonable, and adequate resolution.

WMATA agreed not to make any changes to the revised screening policy for one year from the approval date. Kleinman was hopeful the transit agency would see benefits in continuing it longers. “Screening out qualified workers is not something that benefits companies or organization,” she said.

John Freedman with Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP in Washington; Matthew Handley and Dennis Corkery with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in Washington; and NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. attorneys Rachel Kleinman in New York and Ajmel Quereshi in Washington represented the applicants.

Thompson Coburn LLP attorneys Kathleen Kraft and Harvey Levin in Washington and Charles Poplstein in St. Louis, Mo., represented WMATA.

The case is Little v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth. , D.D.C., No. 1:14-cv-01289, preliminary settlement approval 12/7/17 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Steingart in Washington at jsteingart@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

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