Seyfarth Synopsis: California is rife with regulation of how employers may obtain and consider background check information for use in hiring and personnel decisions. The relatively new California ban-the-box law (effective January 1, 2018) and the older Los Angeles and San Francisco ordinances and amendments to the California Labor Code set strict rules on when and how employers can consider criminal and credit histories in employment. Many details to follow.

Before 2014, when San Francisco enacted a city-wide ban-the-box law, criminal history background checks were largely unregulated in California, except for a handful of Labor Code provisions that barred consideration of certain types of criminal records. And California employers were stripped of their ability to use credit checks for hiring and other personnel decisions in 2012, by amendments to the Labor Code that restricted the use of credit checks to very narrow circumstances. Los Angeles and the State of California have now joined San Francisco with their own ban-the-box laws, which markedly differ from San Francisco’s.

This blog highlights the laws concerning criminal and credit history background check reports in California, after briefly discussing the decades-old federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”). As the number of class actions alleging FCRA violations continues to skyrocket, it is critical that California employers understand the basics of all laws affecting employment screening programs and determine what changes to policies, forms, and practices will ensure compliance and reduce the risk of claims.

FCRA Basics

Generally speaking, before an employer may obtain a consumer report (aka a “background check report”)—which may include criminal or credit history, from a third-party background check company (“consumer reporting agency” or “CRA”)—the employer must make a clear and conspicuous written disclosure to the individual, in a document that consists “solely” of the disclosure, that a background check may be done. California’s fair credit reporting statute also requires a separate, stand-alone disclosure, which cannot be combined with the FCRA disclosure. The applicant or employee must provide written consent for the employer to obtain a background check report. There are other requirements for “investigative consumer reports” (those based on interviews of the individual’s friends, neighbors and associates) and employers regulated by the Department of Transportation.

Before an employer relies in whole or in part on a background check report to take an “adverse action” (e.g., rescinding a conditional job offer or discharging an employee), the employer must provide the individual a “pre-adverse action” notice, and include with it a copy of the report and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Summary of Rights. This notice gives the individual an opportunity to discuss the report with the employer before the employer takes adverse action.

Once the employer is prepared to take the adverse action, it must then give the individual an “adverse action” notice, containing certain FCRA-mandated text.

California employers that rely on criminal and credit history information for employment purposes must also consider state and local laws that impose additional compliance obligations, regardless of whether the information is obtained from a CRA.

Employers May Order “Credit Reports” Only for Certain Positions

As noted, California employers have been hampered in their ability to order credit checks since 2012. Labor Code section 1024.5 states that employers, except for financial institutions, may order a credit check only if the individual works (or is applying to work) in certain positions:

  • a managerial position (as defined in California Wage Order 4);
  • a position in the State Department of Justice;
  • a sworn peace officer or law enforcement position;
  • a position for which the employer must, by law, consider credit history information;
  • a position that affords regular access to bank or credit card account information, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth (all three are required), so long as access to this information does not merely involve routine solicitation and processing of credit card applications in a retail establishment;
  • a position where the individual is or will be a named signatory on the bank or credit card account of the employer or authorized to transfer money or authorized to enter into financial contracts on the employer’s behalf;
  • a position that affords access to confidential or proprietary information; or
  • a position that affords regular access during the workday to the employer’s, a customer’s or a client’s cash totaling at least $10,000.

Setting aside state and federal disclosure and authorization requirements discussed above, any California employer that intends to order a credit check on a position identified above must notify the individual in writing why the employer is using a credit report (e.g., the individual is applying for or holds a position that affords access to confidential or proprietary information).

California’s State and Local Ban-the-Box Laws Restrict Use of “Criminal History”

California’s statewide ban-the-box law (Gov’t Code § 12952), as of January 1, 2018, requires employers with five or more employees (subject to few exceptions) to follow certain procedures when requesting and using criminal history information for pre-hire purposes. Specifically, regardless of the source of the criminal history information, employers must:

  • Wait until after a conditional offer of employment to inquire about criminal history, which means asking applicants directly whether they have been convicted of a crime, ordering a criminal history background check, or making any other inquiry about an applicant’s criminal history.
  • Conduct an individualized assessment of an applicant’s conviction to determine whether it has a “direct and adverse relationship with the specific duties of the job that justify denying the applicant the position.” Unlike the Los Angeles ban-the-box ordinance (discussed below), the California law does not require employers to provide the applicant with their assessment.
  • Notify the applicant of any potential adverse action based on the conviction history. The notice must identify the conviction, include a copy of any conviction history report (regardless of the source), and state the deadline for the applicant to provide additional information, such as evidence of inaccuracy, rehabilitation, or other mitigating circumstances.
  • After waiting the requisite time period, notify the applicant of any final adverse action, of any existing procedure the applicant has to challenge the decision or request reconsideration, and of the applicant’s right to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

In contrast to the FCRA pre-adverse and adverse action notices—required only if the adverse decision is based on information obtained from a background check report from a CRA—the California notices are required even if the employer doesn’t order criminal background check reports from a CRA, but learns of the criminal history from a different source (such as an applicant self-disclosure).

Substantively, a wide range of criminal records are off-limits to California employers (unless the employer qualifies for very narrow exceptions identified in the Labor Code). Records that cannot be used are:

  • arrests that did not lead to a conviction;
  • non-felony marijuana convictions that are older than two years;
  • juvenile records; and
  • diversions and deferrals.

Although complying with California law can be challenging, employers that hire in the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco must also look to the ban-the-box ordinances in these jurisdictions, which exceed the requirements found in the FCRA and the California ban-the-box law.

The Los Angeles Fair Chance Initiative for Hiring Ordinance

The Los Angeles ordinance, effective January 22, 2017, applies to any “employer” located or doing business in the City of Los Angeles and employs 10 or more employees. An employee is any person who performs at least two hours of work on average each week in the City of Los Angeles and who is covered by California’s minimum wage law. The ordinance also applies to job placement and referral agencies and is broad enough to cover other types of work, including temporary and seasonal workers and independent contractors.

The L.A. ordinance goes beyond California-imposed requirements by imposing the following onerous steps on employers when considering criminal history (regardless of the source):

  • Perform a written assessment that “effectively links the specific aspects of the Applicant’s Criminal History with risks inherent in the duties of the Employment position sought by the Applicant.” The assessment form that contains the relevant factors can be found on the city’s website.
  • Provide the applicant a “Fair Chance Process”—giving the applicant an opportunity to provide information or documentation the employer should consider before making a final decision, including evidence that the criminal record is inaccurate, or evidence of rehabilitation or other mitigating factors. As part of this process, the employer must include with the pre-adverse action notice a copy of the written assessment and any other information supporting the employer’s proposed adverse action.
  • Wait at least five business days to take adverse action or fill the position. If the applicant provides additional information or documentation, the employer must consider the new information and perform a written reassessment, which is at the bottom of the form mentioned above. If the employer still decides to take adverse action against the applicant, the employer must notify the candidate and attach a copy of the reassessment with the adverse action notice.

Los Angeles also states that all solicitations and advertisements for Los Angeles opportunities must state that the employer will consider qualified candidates with criminal histories in a manner consistent with the law.

Moreover, employers must post, in a conspicuous workplace that applicants visit, a notice that informs candidates of the Los Angeles ordinance. Copies of the notice must be sent to each labor union or representative of workers that has a collective bargaining agreement or other agreement applicable to employees in Los Angeles. This notice can be found on the City’s website.

San Francisco’s Fair Chance Ordinance

San Francisco, as of August 13, 2014, became California’s first city to enact a ban-the-box law. Because the new California ban-the-box law provided greater protections to job applicants, the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors (on April 3, 2018) amended the Fair Chance Ordinance (Article 49) to align (in some respects) with the California law. However, employers with five or more employees working in San Francisco that intend to inquire about and consider criminal history (regardless of the source) also must:

  • Provide the applicant or employee with a copy of the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement’s (“OLSE”) Fair Chance Act Notice before inquiring about criminal history or ordering a criminal history background check.
  • Post the OLSE Notice “in a conspicuous place at every workplace, job site, or other location in San Francisco under the Employer’s control frequently visited by their employees or applicants,” and “send a copy of this notice to each labor union or representative of workers with which they have a collective bargaining agreement or other agreement or understanding, that is applicable to employees in San Francisco.” The posted Notice must be in English, Spanish, Chinese, and any language spoken by at least 5% of the employees at the workplace, job site, or other location at which it is posted. The Notice currently is on the OLSE’s website.

Covered San Francisco employers are barred from considering the following types of criminal records (even though these records are not off-limits in other California cities), subject to narrow exceptions: (i) infractions; (ii) convictions that are older than seven years (measured from the date of sentencing); and (iii) any conviction that arises out of conduct that has been decriminalized since the date of the conviction, measured from the date of sentencing (which would include convictions for certain marijuana and cannabis offenses).

California Workplace Solutions

Class actions against employers for failing to follow hyper-technical requirements for background checks have come to dominate the news. Employers in California and elsewhere will want to conduct (privileged) assessments to strengthen their compliance with the myriad laws that regulate use of an individual’s criminal and credit history. Suggested next steps include:

  • Assess coverage under the California, Los Angeles, and San Francisco ban-the-box laws, and California’s law restricting use of credit reports.
  • Review job advertisements and postings both for unlawful and mandatory language regarding criminal history.
  • Review job application and related forms for unlawful inquiries regarding criminal history.
  • Train employees who conduct job interviews and make or influence hiring and personnel decisions, regarding inquiries into, and uses of, credit and criminal history, including best practices for documentation and record retention.
  • Review the hiring process to ensure compliance, including the timing of criminal history background checks, the distribution of mandatory notices, and the application of necessary waiting periods.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The California Legislature has just created yet another protected class of individuals entitled to sue employers under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The new class of potential plaintiffs are applicants denied employment because of their conviction history, where the employer is unable to justify relying on that conviction history to deny employment.

We’ve reported on two January 2017 developments for California employers that use criminal records in employment decisions: (1) Los Angeles enacted a city-wide “ban-the-box” ordinance, and (2) the Fair Employment & Housing Council approved new regulations that borrow heavily from the EEOC’s April 2012 “Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The trend continues. Over the weekend, on October 14, 2017, Governor Jerry Brown announced that he has signed Assembly Bill 1008, which amends FEHA to add new Government Code section 12952. This section will restrict an employer’s ability to make hiring decisions based on an applicant’s conviction records, including a “ban-the-box” provision and a prohibition against considering conviction history until the applicant has received a conditional offer of employment. (It is only scant comfort to reflect that the final version of AB 1008 was not as stringent as the originally proposed bill, which would have placed even greater restrictions on consideration of criminal history.) With a fast-approaching effective date of January 1, 2018, California employers should review their policies and procedures now to ensure compliance.

Coverage

Section 12952, like other parts of FEHA, will apply to employers with five or more employees. Section 12592 exempts from its coverage only a small handful of positions:

  • positions for which government agencies are required by law to check conviction history,
  • positions with criminal justice agencies,
  • Farm Labor Contractors as defined in the Labor Code, and
  • positions as to which the law (g., SEC regulations) requires employers to check criminal history for employment purposes or restricts employment based on criminal history.

Inquiries About Conviction History

Section 12952 will make it unlawful for California employers to

  • include on a job application any question about conviction history, unless the application is presented after a conditional offer of employment,
  • inquire into or consider an applicant’s conviction history before extending a conditional offer of employment, and
  • consider, distribute, or disseminate information about criminal history that California already prohibits employers from considering, such as (a) an arrest not resulting in a conviction (except in the limited situations described in Labor Code section 432.7), (b) referral to or participation in a pretrial or post trial diversion program, and (c) convictions that have been sealed, dismissed, expunged, or statutorily eradicated pursuant to law.

Section 12952 expressly states that it will not prevent employers from conducting conviction history checks that are not covered by the new law.

Section 12952 borrows its definition of “conviction” from Labor Code section 432.7(a)(1), (3):  “a plea, verdict, or finding of guilt regardless of whether sentence is imposed by the court.” The term “conviction history” is somewhat broader, and can include certain arrests.

Individualized Assessment 

If an employer intends to deny hire because of a prior conviction, Section 12952 will require the employer to assess whether the individual applicant’s conviction history has a “direct and adverse relationship with the specific duties of the job that justify denying the applicant the position.” This individualized assessment must consider the nature and gravity of the criminal offense, the time that has passed since the offense and the completion of the sentence, and the nature of the job sought.

The employer, may, but need not, document the required individualized assessment.

Adverse Action Based on Conviction History

If the individualized assessment leads to a preliminary determination that the applicant’s conviction history is disqualifying, then the employer must provide a written notice. Section 12952 will require more than what the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires. Specifically, the written notice that Section 12952 will require must

  • identify the conviction at issue,
  • include a copy of any conviction history report (which means the notice is required regardless of the source of the conviction history),
  • explain the applicant’s right to respond to the notice before the employer’s decision becomes final,
  • state the deadline for that response, and
  • tell the applicant that the response may include evidence challenging the accuracy of the conviction history and evidence of rehabilitation or mitigating circumstances.

The applicant has five business days to respond to a preliminary notice. The employer, in then making its final employment decision, may, but need not, explain the reasoning for its final decision. (Note that the Los Angeles ordinance, by contrast, requires employers to document the individualized assessment and to give the applicant a copy of it before making a final decision.)

If the applicant timely notifies the employer that the applicant disputes the accuracy of the conviction history and is taking specific steps to obtain evidence, then the applicant has an additional five business days to respond. The employer must consider any information the applicant submits before the employer can make a final decision.

If an employer then makes a final decision to deny employment based solely or in part on conviction history, a second written notification must be provided to the applicant, which must include:

  • the final denial or disqualification,
  • any existing procedure the employer has to challenge the decision or request reconsideration, and
  • the right to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Again, the employer may, but need not, explain its final decision. (Under the Los Angeles ordinance, new requirements arise when the applicant provides any additional information upon receipt of the employer’s first notice and its initial completed assessment: the employer receiving that additional information must then complete a re-assessment and provide the applicant with a copy of it while notifying the applicant of the final decision.)

Remedies 

Because Section 12952 will be part of the FEHA, an aggrieved individual may sue for the full range of FEHA damages available, including compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, and costs.

Next Steps

Most immediately, California employers should determine whether they need to revise job applications, interview guidelines, and policies and procedures for criminal background checks. Many employers will need to revise their pre-adverse and adverse action letters to comply with the many laws regulating criminal background checks, and to revamp the timing of events in their hiring process.

Employers throughout the United States, and particularly multi-state employers, should continue to monitor developments in this and related areas of the law, including laws restricting the use of credit history information and the fair credit reporting laws.

 

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The California Fair Employment and Housing Council (“FEHC”) has approved new regulations, effective July 1, 2017, to limit employers’ use of criminal history when making employment decisions.

Request for a criminal background checkNew Regulation Highlights

Updating our prior post, the FEHC has finalized new regulations on employer consideration of criminal history, largely adopting the guidance set forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in its April 2012 “Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  • Expanding the Types of Criminal History Employers May Consider: Employers will be prohibited from considering any non-felony convictions for marijuana possession if the conviction is more than two years old. (Current California law prohibits asking applicants to provide information concerning convictions for marijuana-related offenses that are more than two years old; detentions or arrests not resulting in conviction (except for those pending); convictions that have been judicially dismissed or ordered sealed; and information concerning a referral to or participation in a work/education program as part of probation.)
  • Requiring Notice to the Applicant/Employee of a Disqualifying Conviction and Providing a Reasonable Opportunity to Present Evidence of Factual Inaccuracy: Under the new regs, prior to taking adverse action, an employer must provide the applicant notice of the disqualifying conviction and give the applicant a reasonable opportunity to present evidence of factual inaccuracy. If the applicant produces such evidence, the conviction cannot be considered in the employment decision. The notice is only required when the criminal history is obtained from a source other than the applicant or employee (e.g., through a consumer report or internally generated search). This notice differs from the notice required by the Fair Credit Report Act (“FCRA”), which mandates notices only if the employer takes adverse action based on information contained in a third-party background check. This notice also differs from those in “Ban the Box” city ordinances, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, where notice may be required if adverse action is taken from criminal history information from any source, including disclosure from the candidate.
  • Prohibiting Consideration of Criminal History When Doing So Will Result in an Adverse Impact on Individuals Within a Protected Class: Employers will also be prohibited from considering criminal history if doing so will result in an adverse impact (referred to by the EEOC as “disparate impact”) on individuals within a certain class (e.g., race, national origin, etc.). The regs bring California into explicit alignment with federal law on this point. Applicants bear the initial burden of proof with respect to establishing that the employer’s background screening policy has an adverse impact on a protected class, e.g., conviction statistics or other types of evidence. If adverse impact is demonstrated, the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate that its policy is “job related and consistent with business necessity,” and tailored to the specific circumstances, taking into account factors such as those set forth in Green v. Missouri Pacific Railroad, 549 F.2d 1158 (8th Cir. 1975), i.e.,: (i) nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; (ii) amount of time since the offense or conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and (iii) nature of the job held or sought. (Bright-line disqualification policies that include convictions that are older than seven years create a rebuttable presumption that they are not sufficiently tailored.) Even if an employer can demonstrate job-relatedness and consistency with business necessity, an applicant or employee can still bring a claim if they can show that there is a less discriminatory alternative (such as a narrower list of disqualifying convictions) that advance the employer’s legitimate concerns as effectively as the current policy or practice.

Employer Outlook

Employers in California should review their policies on use of criminal history in hiring and modify any practices to ensure compliance with the new FEHC regulation (as well as the FCRA and applicable municipal Ban the Box ordinances, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco).

Pamela Q. Devata is a partner in Seyfarth Shaw’s Chicago office. Stacey L. Blecher is counsel in the firm’s New York office. If you would like further information, please contact your Seyfarth Shaw LLP attorney, Pamela Q. Devata at pdevata@seyfarth.com or Stacey L. Blecher at sblecher@seyfarth.com.