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When is a report “in connection with an investigation?”

April 1, 2016 Leave a comment

Last month, I discussed two federal court cases that considered whether a criminal background report that Wells Fargo obtained from First Advantage was a “consumer report” that had to comply with the FCRA.  One court found that the report wasn’t a consumer report; the other found that it was.  In both cases, the question was whether Wells Fargo obtained it “in connection with an investigation of … compliance with Federal, State, or local laws and regulations, the rules of a self-regulatory organization, or any preexisting written policies of the employer.”  15 U.S.C. Sec. 1681a(y).  Reports that fall within that definition are not “consumer reports” and are not subject to (most) other provisions in the FCRA.

As I pointed out last month, the Martin court in Minnesota held that because Wells Fargo obtained its reports to comply with its obligations under two federal laws (FIRREA and the SAFE Act), the report fell within the Sec. 1681a(y) exception to the FCRA. But the Manuel court in Virginia held that, to the contrary, reading Sec. 1681a(y) that way would essentially mean that Wells Fargo never had to comply with the FCRA – and the court was unwilling  to take that position.

This month, I thought I would mention two other points that other courts have made about Sec. 1681a(y).  Neither of them resolves the conflict between Martin and Manuel; if anything, they indicate that the issue is a complex one, which no one court has yet definitively considered or decided.

First, some courts have held (as the Martin court itself did) that if an employer or a background screening agency wants to argue that its reports are not regulated by the FCRA because they fall within the exception at Sec. 1681a(y), that’s fine, but it needs to be done on a factual record at the summary judgment stage, and not at the motion to dismiss stage.  Simply saying that “I’m the kind of institution that has to comply with federal law, so my reports are exempt from FCRA” – which is essentially what a defendant would do at the motion to dismiss stage – is not good enough for these courts.

See Freckleton v. Target Corp., 81 F. Supp. 3d 473 (D. Md. 2015) (denying motion to dismiss, and stating that “Target was not running the check to be compliant with state or federal regulations. Cf. Martin … (if Wells Fargo ran background checks to be compliant with the SAFE Act then the exclusion would apply; however, this was a question of fact inappropriate for a motion to dismiss)”); Rawlings v. ADS Alliance Data Sys., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81055 (W.D. Mo. June 23, 2015) (denying motion to dismiss and stating that “[If] background checks are excluded based on its need to comply with federal banking law, the record must be developed to so demonstrate … Martin is distinguishable inasmuch as Martin was resolved on a summary judgment record”).

From a defendant’s perspective, this is annoying – it should be obvious that some employers have to get criminal record reports under some laws (banks under federal law, or perhaps schools under state law), and the litigation cost of preparing a full factual record is not trivial.  But I think defendants can live with this.  Indeed, if the Manuel court had known the details of Wells Fargo’s compliance program, the result in that class action case might have been different.

Second, the Manuel court had stated that for Sec. 1681a(y) to apply, a report had to be obtained “in connection with” some larger investigation; a report that was pulled merely as a matter of routine compliance (and without any additional inquiry or investigation) did not fall within the Sec. 1681a(y) provision.

One court has followed up on that point by suggesting that one can tell whether a report is part of a larger investigation by asking whether the employer, before it pulled a background report, had some reason to believe that the employee or job applicant had violated the law – if yes, then there is a larger investigation and Sec. 1681a(y) applies; if no, then the report is subject to the FCRA.  See Freckleton, 81 F. Supp. 3d at 481 n.11 (citing Mattiaccio v. DHA Grp., 21 F. Supp. 3d 15, 2014 WL 717780, at *3 (D.D.C. 2014) (whether employer gathered information “in connection with an investigation of . . . suspected misconduct” depended on whether the employer made the request after “receiv[ing] information indicating that [the] Plaintiff had previously been convicted of perjury” or in retaliation for a complaint); Russell v. Shelter Fin. Servs., 604 F. Supp. 201, 202-03 (W.D. Mo. 1984) (finding that report was not “in connection with” an employment decision under Sec. 1681a(h) if the subject of the report resigned before the report was pulled)).

I question whether the statutory phrase “in connection with an investigation” necessarily means “because of an investigation,” “as part of an investigation,” or “due to an investigation” – which is how the Manuel, Mattiaccio and Freckleton courts seem to read it.  If I go to a restaurant to get some pizzas for a party, and I buy a hoagie as well, one  could say that I bought the hoagie “in connection with” my purchase of the pizzas, even though I bought everything at the same time.  Also, a review of “in connection with” at thesaurus.com suggests that the phrase means “about,” as opposed to “before.”

 

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