A federal judge has granted class certification to three pools of Metro workers and job applicants after nine African American men alleged discrimination in the transit agency’s criminal background screenings, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court. The action allows a multitude of discrimination cases to be tried concurrently, rather than one-by-one.
D.C. lawyers brought the suit in 2014 on behalf of nine plaintiffs who alleged that Metro’s screening policy violated their civil rights. The suit argued that Metro’s screening requirements were “overly broad, unjustifiably rigid and unduly harsh.” The complaint argues that Metro’s background checks, while neutral on paper, have a disparate impact on African Americans, who are barred from employment more often than people of other races, according to the plaintiffs.
“The policy disqualifies many job applicants and employees based on criminal history that is not related to the job at issue or occurred so long ago — in some cases, 20 or 30 years in the past — that it is irrelevant to any fair determination of employee honesty, reliability or safety,” read the original complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
In court documents filed last week, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer’s court grants class certification to three pools of black employees and job applicants who might have been flagged for “disqualifying” offenses. The classes include bus and rail operators, landscape workers and track repair personnel, and MetroAccess paratransit drivers, among others, and cover periods beginning either in February 2012 or January 2013. The offenses include crimes against other people and property, sex crimes, drug offenses, societal offenses and traffic offenses, according to the suit.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund argues that job applicants were rejected absent any consideration of how long ago the offense occurred or whether it was relevant to the job title.
“Many people with convictions, including ones convicted of nonviolent drug convictions, face lifetime disqualification under [Metro’s] current policy,” the defense fund says.
The fund alleges that Metro’s policy violates local and federal anti-discrimination law and runs afoul of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines.
The fund, which joins two other groups representing the plaintiffs, welcomed the recognition of class action.
“The court’s decision paves the way for vindicating our clients’ rights and the rights of [Metro] employees and prospective job applicants,” said Rachel Kleinman, LDF senior counsel, in a statement. “WMATA’s criminal background check policy is unduly harsh, out of step with other jurisdictions, and limits opportunities for qualified African-American employees.”
Metro declined to comment on the case.
“As a matter of policy we do not comment on pending litigation,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.
In a court filing, however, the agency argued that the racial makeup of workforce was evidence enough that there was no discrimination in hiring. The transit agency noted that 75 percent of its employees and contractors are black, according to court filings, and African Americans constitute 96 percent of its bus and rail operators.
While most of the nine plaintiffs were dismissed for nonviolent drug felonies, some were also guilty of other offenses — assault, robbery or brandishing a firearm, according to the suit. At the time the case was filed, Matthew Handley, director of litigation for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said there could be 150 or more other plaintiffs. The lawyers’ committee joins the NAACP defense fund and the law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer in representing the plaintiffs.
“WMATA has the ability to adopt a hiring policy — as other entities have done — that is fair and nondiscriminatory and that does not impact the safety of the public,” Handley said in a statement.