Class-Action Suit Against Metro Alleges Civil Rights Violations

Rosslyn Metro Station Near Washington DC and GeorgetownWashington, DC lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority on behalf of nine African American men who insist the agency’s criminal background screening policy is a violation of their civil rights. The issue boils down to whether the agency’s criminal background checks unfairly penalize a person for past offenses, particularly nonviolent drug offenses. The method of screening used has, according to the class-action suit, led to a disproportionate number of well-qualified African American workers from retaining or securing jobs with WMATA.

A portion of the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court, reads as follows:

“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.”

Most of the plaintiffs have been convicted of nonviolent drug felonies, according to their attorneys. They estimate that 150 or more plaintiffs could join the nine men named in the suit.

The attorneys representing the nine plaintiffs note that 90 percent of drug convictions in in the District of Columbia involve African Americans despite the fact that drug use rates are about the same for African Americans and Whites, according to a 2013 study done by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. You can find a pdf copy of their study here. Based on those statistics, the attorneys allege, white applicants benefit from a much greater rate of employment than their African American counterparts. The attorneys also point to the fact that DC and about 70 other municipalities across the country, including Montgomery County, have recently passed “ban the box” legislation, which is aimed at preventing employers from asking about prior convictions on job applications. To be clear, the DC legislation prevents employers from rejecting potential job applicants based on their criminal background, but does allow screening after a job interview.

WMATA has declined to comment on the issue, citing the pending litigation, and instead pointed reporters to statements made by General Manager Sarles when speaking with city officials earlier this year. In his remarks, Sarles noted WMATA altered its policy on background screenings in 2011 in an effort to establish a more uniform process. “(T)he policy provides for second chances, since all disqualified candidates are given the opportunity to submit an appeal with supporting documents to Metro for review.” Sarles also noted that the agency had not fired anyone because of a criminal conviction prior to their employment with WMATA.

As a criminal defense firm that has represented many people charged with nonviolent drug offenses, we sympathize with the plaintiffs and can attest to the fact that the criminal justice system can be overly punitive when it comes to common mistakes decent people make, especially in regard to drug use and crimes. Clearly the prosecution of African Americans for drug and other crimes is grossly disproportionate nationwide, as is their rate of incarceration. African American defendants are also more likely to receive harsh sentences than their white counterparts. Whether the class-action suit proves successful remains to be seen, but the discussion it has generated and the push to address these issues is to be commended.