“Give Me Some Credit!” Maybe that’s how the EEOC feels these days, after its high-profile suit against Kaplan Higher Education Corp. was dismissed on January 28, 2013. As readers may remember, the EEOC sued Kaplan in 2010, alleging that its pre-employment credit check policies had a disparate impact upon Black job applicants.
In a 23-page opinion, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio dismissed the suit on Kaplan’s Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court first excluded the expert witness testimony offered by the EEOC, holding that it was scientifically unsound. Expert witness testimony is key in disparate impact cases, because they rise and fall on the percentage of job applicants from a given classification as compared to the percentage of hires in the same classification. Among the key problems for the EEOC was that Kaplan, like many employers, does not collect demographic information on the race of job applicants. As a result, EEOC struggled to identify the races of those applicants that were rejected due to credit problems. In an effort to remedy the problem, the EEOC subpoenaed records from state DMVs, and used a team of “race raters” to review the DMV photos and assign races to the job applicants. The Court, not surprisingly, rejected this approach and the resulting expert witness analysis.
Next the Court addressed Kaplan’s Motion for Summary Judgment. In the absence of any statistical evidence demonstrating an adverse impact caused by the use of credit checks, the Court held that the EEOC’s case had to be dismissed.
There are several interesting considerations arising out of this litigation. First, as the Court’s decision noted, the EEOC itself uses credit checks to vet job applicants! This should not come as a great surprise, as many employers use credit checks as one of a litany of tools at their disposal to identify the best-qualified candidates. Nonetheless, for an agency that has widely publicized the pitfalls of background checks in the hiring process, its adoption of the practice calls its hardline stance into question.
Second, the EEOC’s past enforcement practices gave rise to many of its difficulties in this case. Many employment law attorneys discourage their clients from collecting race, gender, and other protected-characteristic data during the application process. In the past, the EEOC has used such information to support disparate hiring claims. Kaplan, in complying with EEOC best practices, deprived the EEOC of information that it needed to prove its case, thereby leading to the rejected “race rater” approach.
Finally, many employment law experts and EEOC-watchers are wondering if the Court’s decision will put a damper on EEOC enforcement efforts directed at background checks. As readers of this blog know, background checks have been in the EEOC’s cross-hairs for quite some time, with new guidance issued on the use of criminal background checks in April 2012. In light of the hurdles faced in this case, many are speculating that the EEOC may back off of its efforts to litigate these issues, focusing instead on conciliation efforts.
Only time will tell. In the meantime, employers can rejoice in a victory for the reasoned and supportable use of pre-employment credit checks.