Little v. Washington Metro Area Transit Authority

Date Filed: 07/30/2014

In July 2014, LDF’s Economic Justice Program, together with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and the law firm Arnold and Porter LLP, filed a class action lawsuit against the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority and three of its contractors, challenging their use of an overly broad and unnecessarily punitive criminal background screening policy.

According to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of nine named plaintiffs, WMATA’s policy goes far beyond any legitimate public safety concerns to permanently stigmatize and bar from employment well-qualified workers, a disproportionate number of whom are African Americans.

Specifically, we argue that WMATA’s policy violates federal and local antidiscrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because it has resulted in the firing of many employees and disqualification of many qualified job applicants with a wide range of criminal convictions, with insufficient consideration whether the convictions occurred many years in the past or have any relationship to the job position at issue. 

Under WMATA’s policy, a vast number of criminal convictions —including many non-violent drug convictions—result in lifetime disqualification.  For example, a person who has ever had a felony conviction for drug possession is permanently disqualified from employment in a wide range of jobs, including bus operator and custodian, even if the applicant has been drug-free and held a steady job for 10 or 20 years.

Even more troubling, WMATA’s policy has a disproportionate impact on qualified African American employees, who have been the most severely impacted by the recent economic downturn. Due to racial profiling and other discriminatory policies and practices in our criminal justice system, African Americans in the D.C. metro area are much more likely to be affected by WMATA’s policy.

Here are some statistics:

  • Even though African American and white residents use marijuana at roughly similar rates and D.C. is only 51% African American, in 2010, African Americans accounted for 91 percent of all marijuana arrests in the District.
  • A recent study by Washington Lawyers Committee demonstrates that African-American residents accounted for a disproportionately high percentage of all drug arrests, despite similar rates of usage.
  • The WLC report also shows that 8 of 10 arrests in DC in 2011 were of African Americans; 19 out of 20 DC arrests overall were for nonviolent offenses.
  • The District of Columbia currently has the highest per capita marijuana arrest rates in the U.S. 
  • Recognizing that marijuana arrests have had a disproportionate impact on African Americans, the D.C. City Council recently voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. This law is viewed by both D.C. council members and advocates as a model for other jurisdictions looking to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Our lawsuit seeks equal opportunity for all who have been wrongly denied employment because of WMATA’s unfair background screening policy. While criminal background information can be a legitimate tool for employers when screening job applicants, WMATA’s policy is unduly rigid, out of step with other jurisdictions, and limits opportunities for qualified African Americans employees who have paid their debt to society, in violation of antidiscrimination laws.

To read about LDF’s complaint against WMATA before the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, go here.