By Jeffrey B. Halbert, Stewart & Irwin PC
Employers utilizing consumer reporting agencies for purposes of conducting employee background checks are required to comply with specific requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”). The FCRA provides very broad definitions for what constitutes a “consumer reporting agency,” “consumer report,” and “investigative consumer report.” In order to comply with the FCRA, employers obtaining consumer reports from consumer reporting agencies, must: (i) prior to receipt of a consumer report, make a “clear and conspicuous” written disclosure to the consumer (i.e., prospective employee), in a document that consists “solely” of the disclosure, that a consumer report may be obtained for “employment purposes”; and (ii) the applicant must provide advance written consent for the employer to obtain a consumer report for “employment purposes.”
The FCRA also imposes additional disclosure requirements on employers obtaining investigative consumer reports (i.e., consumer reports based on personal interviews conducted by a consumer reporting agency, such as in-depth reference checks). The employer must disclose to the applicant or employee that an investigative consumer report may be obtained from a consumer reporting agency. The disclosure must include a statement informing the applicant or employee of his or her right to request additional disclosures of the “nature and scope” of the investigation, as well as the FCRA Summary of Rights. The employer must also certify to the consumer reporting agency that it has a “permissible purpose” for requesting a report and that it (i) has provided the required disclosures to the applicant or employee; (ii) has obtained written authorization from the applicant or employee; (iii) will not use the information contained in the report in violation of any federal or state equal opportunity law of regulation; and (iv) will provide the applicant or employee with a copy of the report and FCRA Summary of Rights in the event that an “adverse action” is taken on the basis of information contained in the report.
If an employer takes an adverse action against the applicant or employee, in whole or in part, based on information contained in the report, the employer must follow the two-step notification process. First, before the employer implements the adverse action against the applicant or employee, it must provide a “pre-adverse action” notice to the individual, which must include a copy of the report and the FCRA Summary of Rights. If after waiting the required time, the employer is prepared to take the adverse action against the applicant or employee, it must then provide an “adverse action” notice to the individual, which must include specific information contained within the statute, including contact information for the applicable consumer reporting agency.
The FCRA allows an applicant or employee to pursue a private cause of action against an employer for “negligently” or “willfully” failing to comply with any of the requirements of the Act relating to the individual. The statute of limitations for FCRA violations require that an action be brought by the earlier of (i) two years after the date of discovery by the plaintiff of the violation; or (ii) five years after the date on which the violation that is the basis of the alleged liability occurred. Available damages vary depending on whether the alleged violation is negligent of willful. An employer who negligently fails to comply with any requirement of the FCRA relating to the individual is liable for (i) actual damages sustained by the individual; and (ii) reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. Employers who willfully violate the statute are subject to (i) actual damages or statutory damages ranging between $100 and $1,000; (ii) punitive damages; and (iii) attorneys’ fees and costs.
Responsibility for enforcement of the FCRA, for the most part, has been transferred from the Fair Trade Commission (FTC) to the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as a result of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. As such, CFPB now possesses primary rulemaking responsibility for the FCRA and recently issued regulations requiring updates to FCRA notices being utilized for background check purposes. Prior to January 1, 2013, employers must substitute the new FCRA Summary of Rights for those currently being utilized when (i) they enclose the form with the “pre-adverse action” notice; and (ii) provide the form with required disclosures for investigative consumer reports. Specifically, the CFPB has modified the FCRA Summary of Rights, Notice to Users of Consumer Reports of their Obligations under the FCRA and Notice to Furnishers of Information of their Obligations under the FCRA to make clear that the CFPB is the agency from which consumers may obtain information about their rights under the FCRA. The new forms can be found at Appendices K, M, and N to 12 C.F.R. Part 1022 and obtained online at www.ecfr.gov or www.consumerfinance.gov.
Given the intensified focus on background checks by other agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and newly issued state laws in Indiana and other states, it is incumbent upon employers to sufficiently assess their current credit and criminal record screening policies and procedures in order to ensure compliance with applicable laws.