Lesson on how a consumer should not react to an inaccurate background check

A federal District Court decision issued in August of 2009 in the Western District of Arkansas contains a valuable lesson for a consumer that believes that a background check was inaccurate. In that case, a Court held it was the consumer’s own behavior after the background check that caused the job loss, and not an inaccuracy caused by human error that was quickly corrected.

The plaintiff in the case was seeking employment at a college to teach courses on psychology and domestic violence. During her background check, the court research firm made a clerical error that falsely labeled the plaintiff ironically as a person who was convicted of assault and family violence in Texas. The case was before the court on motions for summary judgment, which is a procedure where a party asserts that even if the evidence was viewed in a light most favorable to the other party, there is insufficient evidence as a matter of law for a jury to find against them.

The facts showed that the college utilized the services of a background screening firm (called a Consumer Reporting Agency or CRA) to conduct a background check, including a check for criminal records, and the CRA in turn used other researchers. Due to simple human error, the court researcher made a clerical mistake, resulting in mixing up someone else’s criminal records with the plaintiff’s, who in fact had no record.

Three days later the Plaintiff learned that the background report was negative and reported a criminal conviction. The plaintiff immediately contacted the college and the CRA. The screening report was promptly corrected and the plaintiff received a ‘clear’ report. The college indicated they were ready to proceed with the hire.

However, the plaintiff was still apparently unhappy even though the report was quickly corrected and she was going to get the job. In a conversation with college personnel, the consumer talked about how the college had put her through hell, they had put her family through stress, and that (the college) had tarnished her reputation. The plaintiff also indicated that she had interviewed elsewhere. The college then decided not to hire her based upon her demeanor after the matter was cleared up, and took the position that the decision was not related to the initial report. The plaintiff also claimed emotional distress even though the report was promptly corrected.

The Court dismissed the claim for loss of employment because the evidence clearly showed the incorrect report was not the reason she lost the job. The job loss was due to how she reacted to the situation. Given that the report was promptly corrected and the college was intending to hire her, she could not blame the screening firms for her own behavior. The court did find however, that she was entitled to continue with her claims for emotional distress based upon the brief period of time before the report was corrected, and it was a jury issue as to whether the screening firms involved exercised an appropriate level of care.

This case demonstrates the old adage that how someone chooses to react to events is sometimes more important than the event itself. Even though screening firms go to great lengths to ensure that every report is accurate, as with anything that involves human beings, errors can occur. That is why under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, (FCRA), there are extensive provisions for re-investigating and correcting reports. It is certainly understandable that an applicant that teaches about domestic violence would be upset at being inaccurately portrayed as a violator. However, the mistake was caused by human error and the report was promptly corrected. It was only the consumer’s own reaction that caused the job loss.

(Note: Employment Screening Resources has adopted a practice of not indentifying the names of parties to lawsuits unnecessarily in blogs and newsletters, since it does not add anything to the lessons learned, and there can be more to the story. However, if a reader has a reason to review the actual case and cannot locate it themselves, please contact the author.)