By Brad Cave
In 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Kaplan Higher Education Corporation, claiming that Kaplan’s use of credit reports had a disparate impact on black applicants. The trial court threw out the EEOC’s suit because it used an invalid method for determining the race of Kaplan’s applicants. The EEOC appealed, and lost again. In a stinging opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Kaplan and rejected the methodology promoted by the EEOC’s expert witness. The Sixth Circuit’s opinion dooms the agency’s background check disparate impact lawsuit against Kaplan and slaps the EEOC for suing a private employer “for using the same type of background check that the EEOC itself uses.” The ruling also illustrates the EEOC’s failure to show that an employer’s use of neutral background checks results in a disparate impact on African-American applicants. EEOC v. Kaplan Higher Educ. Corp., No. 13-3408 (6th Cir. April 9, 2014).
Credit Checks Aimed At Preventing Employee Abuses
Kaplan is a for-profit test preparation and higher education provider. Because some Kaplan students receive financial aid, some Kaplan employees have access to students’ financial information, including information that is subject to the U.S. Department of Education confidentiality regulations. Years ago, Kaplan discovered that some of its financial-aid officers had stolen aid payments and some executives had engaged in self-dealing by hiring relatives as vendors for the company. To help stop these abuses, Kaplan began conducting credit checks on applicants for senior-executive positions as well as accounting, financial aid and other positions where employees have access to company or student financial information. Neither Kaplan nor its credit check vendor provided or linked the applicant’s race with the applicant’s credit report.
EEOC Alleges Kaplan’s Credit Checks Screen Out More African-Americans
Consistent with its efforts to target employers who use background check policies to screen applicants, the EEOC sued Kaplan alleging that Kaplan’s use of credit checks resulted in more African-Americans being rejected than whites, creating a disparate impact in violation of Title VII. To support its claim, the EEOC hired industrial and organizational psychologist Kevin Murphy to analyze Kaplan’s credit check data and offer an expert opinion based on the statistics. However, because the credit check information did not include the applicant’s race, Murphy and his team needed another method to determine race. They created a process that the EEOC called “race rating” in which a team of five “race raters” reviewed drivers’ license photos for a portion of the applicants to visually identify their race. Despite having credit information for 4,670 applicants, Murphy based his “expert” analysis on only 1,090 applicants, of whom 803 had been racially classified using Murphy’s “race rating” process.
“Homemade Methodology” Rejected by Court
The Sixth Circuit wholeheartedly rejected Murphy’s “race rating” process, stating that “[t]he EEOC brought this case on the basis of a homemade methodology, crafted by a witness with no particular expertise to craft it, administered by persons with no particular expertise to administer it, tested by no one, and accepted only by the witness himself.” The Court upheld the exclusion of Murphy’s testimony not only due to his faulty methodology, but also because the group of 1,090 applicants in Murphy’s statistical analysis was not representative of the applicant pool as a whole. Of Kaplan’s entire pool of 4,670 applicants, only 13.3% of the applicants were rejected on the basis of credit checks, but Murphy’s smaller pool of applicants had a fail rate of 23.8%. The Court found that Murphy’s unrepresentative sample might not equate to the respective fail rates of black versus white applicants and therefore, was an unreliable method for the EEOC to show disparate impact.
EEOC’s Own Background Check Policy Contradicts Its Attack on Private Employers For Use of Credit Checks
Although not central to the exclusion of the EEOC’s expert, the Court put the EEOC’s own background check policy front and center. Through the discovery process, Kaplan had successfully obtained information on the EEOC’s background check policies and pointed to the agency’s personnel handbook which states “[o]verdue just debts increase temptation to commit illegal or unethical acts as a means of gaining funds to meet financial obligations.” To address those potential concerns, the EEOC runs credit checks for 84 of the 97 positions within the agency. The Court highlighted the disconnect between the EEOC attacking Kaplan for a credit check policy that the agency used itself.
Future EEOC Challenges to Employer Use of Credit Checks
The Kaplan decision is the latest in a string of EEOC losses in class actions alleging disparate impact based on an employer’s use of a neutral background check process. The EEOC seems unable to provide evidence to support a finding that African-Americans, Hispanics or other groups are being rejected for employment at higher rates than whites based on background checks. In addition, the EEOC’s own use of credit checks in hiring will be used against it in any future similar lawsuits. Although it remains to be seen whether the EEOC will back off of its systemic enforcement efforts related to the use of background checks, the trend for employers is positive.