Court Certifies Three Classes in Action Challenging WMATA’s Criminal Background Check Policy

Erick Little applied for a position as a bus operator with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in 2013. He received a contingent job offer, subject to a background check. During his interview, he told WMATA about his 1987 drug conviction.

In 1987, Erick was 19 years old - not much older than some of the neighborhood little league football players he has now coached for many years.

Even though Erick’s interviewer assured him that his 26-year-old drug conviction would not be held against him, the job offer was rescinded. When WMATA took back its offer of employment, Erick felt ashamed and disappointed. As he recounted, “WMATA sent me, and many others, the message that the first mistake you make is the only thing that matters.”

erick littleSince 2011, WMATA has used an overly broad and unnecessarily punitive criminal background check policy that permanently bars applicants with certain convictions from employment, regardless of the age of the conviction or the unrelatedness of the conviction to the job. In the DC Metro area, African Americans are more likely to have convictions due to a long history of racially discriminatory law enforcement practices. People returning home from prison face a barrage of difficulties that derive indirectly from their criminal records. Often referred to as collateral consequences, these challenges arise when applying for public benefits, seeking affordable housing, or gaining the employment that is necessary for them to rebuild their lives and support their families.

On July 30, 2014, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, along with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Erick Little and eight additional named plaintiffs against WMATA and three of its contractors. This lawsuit challenges WMATA’s criminal background check policy as overly broad and unnecessarily punitive because it goes far beyond any legitimate public safety concerns to permanently stigmatize and bar from employment well-qualified individuals, a disproportionate number of whom are African Americans.

This month, a DC federal judge certified three classes of about 2,000 combined African Americans who were impacted by WMATA’s discriminatory policy. In granting class certification, the court allowed plaintiffs’ claims that WMATA’s policy unfairly and disproportionately limits opportunities for qualified African-American employees to move forward on behalf of all affected job applicants.

Today, Erick Little is a valued employee at Verizon. WMATA’s policy of shutting out qualified applicants is unfair, perpetuates discrimination, and is a loss to their own operation. Rather, a commitment to safety and performance can co-exist with respect for equal opportunity and civil rights.

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