California’s overlapping background check laws

For many years, employers have struggled with California’s overlapping statutes governing the use of background checks. Now, the state’s highest court has weighed in, ruling that compliance with the requirements of both laws is mandatory, even where the laws overlap.

A little history is necessary to understand the situation. In 1970, Congress passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The law defined the term “consumer report” to include an individual’s “credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living.” The FCRA distinguished between consumer reports that contained information obtained by personal interviews and consumer reports gathered by other means.

The California legislature responded with two state analogues in 1975: the Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (ICRAA) and the Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies Act (CCRAA). Modeled on the FCRA, the statutes had similar purposes and were intended to serve complementary goals.

As originally enacted, the ICRAA applied to consumer reports that included character information obtained only through personal interviews. It defined an “investigative consumer report” as one “in which information on a consumer’s character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living is obtained through any means.” The statute requires that the person procuring the report provide the consumer a “clear and conspicuous disclosure in writing” and that the consumer in turn provide a written authorization for the report’s procurement.

Lawmakers took a slightly different approach with CCRAA, which defined a “consumer credit report” as “any written, oral or other communication of any information by a consumer reporting agency bearing on a consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, or credit capacity, which is used or is expected to be used … for … employment purposes.” The definition excluded “any report containing information solely on a consumer’s character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living which is obtained through personal interviews with neighbors, friends, or associates of the consumer reported on, or others with whom he is acquainted or who may have knowledge concerning any such items of information.”

In 1998, the California legislature amended ICRAA to eliminate the personal interview limitation and expand the statute’s scope to include character information obtained under CCRAA or “obtained through any means.”

Since then, CCRAA continues to govern consumer reports that include character information obtained from a source other than personal interviews, as long as those reports contain information “bearing on a consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, or credit capacity.”

What does all this mean for employers? And how did the California Supreme Court get involved?

The two statutes came to the attention of the court when a group of current and former school bus drivers filed suit against their employers, First Student and First Transit, as well as the investigative consumer reporting agency (ICRA) that conducted background checks on the drivers. Eileen Connor led the class action.

After First Student acquired the company where Connor worked as a driver, it requested that the ICRA run background checks to confirm that Connor and the other workers were properly qualified to perform their job duties. The background reports elicited information about the employees’ criminal records, sex offender registries, address history, driving records and employment history.

Prior to conducting the background checks, First Student sent Connor a “Safety Packet” booklet. The booklet included an “Investigative Consumer Report Disclosure and Release” that provided authorization for the ICRA to prepare a consumer report or investigative consumer report. The notice included a checkbox that generally described Connor’s rights under ICRAA, informed her that she could check the box if she wanted to receive a copy of the report and released First Student from all claims and damages arising out of or relating to its background investigation if the box was checked.

Connor filed suit, arguing that the notice failed to satisfy ICRAA’s specific requirements and that First Student neglected to obtain her written authorization to conduct the background check, as required by ICRAA.

First Student asked the court to dismiss the suit, arguing that ICRAA is unconstitutionally vague as applied to the lawsuit because it overlaps with CCRAA and that the notice satisfied CCRAA.

The California Supreme Court found that while the statutes overlap to some degree, achieving compliance with both did not render ICRAA unconstitutional. The two statutes were not intended to be exclusive of each other, the court said, and potential employers can comply with both statutes without undermining the purpose of either.

“If an employer seeks a consumer’s credit records exclusively, then the employer need only comply with CCRAA,” the court explained. “An employer seeking other information that is obtained by any means must comply with ICRAA. In the event that any other information revealed in an ICRAA background check contains a subject’s credit information and the two statutes thus overlap, a regulated party is expected to know and follow the requirements of both statutes, even if that requires greater formality in obtaining a consumer’s credit records.”

First Student complained that because the ICRAA and CCRAA cover the same subject matter, it was unclear which statute applied in the context of employment background checks. But the court disagreed. Connor’s report, for example, fell within the scope of both statutes and “such a duality does not make legal compliance particularly difficult, must less impossible,” the court said.

“Any partial overlap between the statutes does not render one superfluous or unconstitutionally vague,” the court wrote. “They can coexist because both acts are sufficiently clear and each act regulates information that the other does not.”

The California Supreme Court opinion was a loss for First Student and the ICRA, as the court found the defendants had no excuse for not complying with both statutes. For employers more generally, the decision sends an important message: compliance with the requirements of both ICRAA and CCRAA is mandatory, even where the two statutes overlap.