On December 7, 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (the “FTC”), submitted its written testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on the use of criminal background checks in employment decisions. The Commission intends to apply the testimony in reviewing the EEOC’s guidance that an employer’s use of an individual’s criminal history in making employment decisions may, in some instances, violate the prohibition against employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC suggests that minorities are disproportionately likely to have criminal records, which means that when employers use criminal background reports, minorities are possibly affected more than other groups.

Notably, in its testimony, the FTC, which shares the authority for enforcing the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) with other federal agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) does not say anything substantial about civil rights.

The testimony does, however, provide a good recap of the legal rights and obligations prescribed by the FCRA when consumer reports are used for employment purposes, and highlights the FTC’s law enforcement efforts in this area. As its starting point, the testimony reminds that the FCRA imposes several requirements on consumer reporting agencies (“CRAs”) that provide consumer reports to employers, which include ensuring that the employer is in fact using the report for a permissible purpose. In the employment context, permissible purposes are limited to “employment, promotion, reassignment, or retention.” Thus, employers may only obtain a consumer report about applicants or employees, and may not simply use their status as employers to get information about competitors, opposing parties in litigation, or anyone else. Relatedly, under the permissible purpose requirement, CRAs must have reasonable procedures in place to ensure that the consumer report users are who they claim.

The CRAs also must comply with certain procedural requirements, such as giving all users of consumer reports a notice that informs them of their duties under the FCRA. The CRAs must obtain certifications from the employer that: (1) it is in compliance with the FCRA; and (2) it will not use consumer report information in violation of any federal or state equal employment opportunity laws or regulations.

Further, the FCRA mandates that CRAs follow “reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information

[15 U.S.C. § 1681e(b)].” It does not establish, however, a requirement of absolute accuracy and does not require that the CRAs guarantee that the reports are error-free.

If a CRA provides a report that has negative information about an applicant or employee that is based on public records — for example, tax liens, outstanding judgments, or criminal convictions — that CRA either has to notify the applicant or employee directly that it has provided the information to the employer, or has to adopt strict procedures to ensure that the information is complete and up to date [15 U.S.C. § 1681k(a)(1)-(2)]. Regardless of whether a CRA opts to provide the notice or adopt strict procedures, FCRA § 1681e(b), as noted above, requires CRAs to have “reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy.”]

The FCRA also places specific obligations upon employers to provide certain disclosures to the applicants or employees, and obtain their written authorization before using consumer reports. If an employer intends to take an adverse action based either in whole or in part on the information in a consumer report, such as denying a job application, reassigning or terminating an employee, or denying a promotion, the employer must provide the applicant or employee with a pre-adverse action notice before taking the action. The pre-adverse action notice must include a copy of the consumer report on which the employer is relying and a summary of rights under the FCRA. The form, which recently was reissued by the CFPB, describes the consumers’ rights under the FCRA, including the right to obtain copies of their consumer reports and dispute information.

Once the employer has taken the adverse action, it must give the applicant or employee a notice that the action was based on information in the consumer report.  This adverse action notice must include the name, address, and phone number of the CRA that supplied the report, and must inform the applicant or employee of his or her right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of any information in the report, and the right to obtain a free report from the CRA upon request within 60 days. Even though a consumer has the right to dispute errors, the CRAs and furnishers of information to the CRAs typically are allowed thirty days to investigate the consumer’s dispute, and the information may not be corrected in time to affect the consumer’s consideration for a particular job.

The FTC points out that it has pursued an aggressive law enforcement program to ensure that CRAs, furnishers, and consumer report users (including employers) comply with their responsibilities under the FCRA, providing details of recent lawsuits for FCRA violations that resulted in civil penalties against CRAs ranging from $800,000 to $2.6 million. Its recent actions against employers included charges against railroad contractors for failing to provide pre-adverse action and adverse action notices to employees who were fired and job applicants who were rejected based on information in their consumer reports. Under negotiated settlement orders, the companies were required to pay penalties in the amount of $1,000 per violation, and are subject to specific injunctive, record-keeping, and reporting requirements to ensure compliance with the FCRA.

The FTC’s enforcement actions and the latest wave of class action lawsuits enforce that FCRA compliance must be a priority for employers, CRAs and furnishers of information alike.