Opening Doors: Plaintiff In Class Action Brought By The Washington Lawyers’ Committee Wants To Show “Past Mistakes Can Be Overcome”

In a corner of Northeast DC, an old sign covers a large swath of a brick wall close to a train station. Placed there by the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (“WMATA” or “Metro”), the banner calls on passersby to apply for jobs with WMATA through the website: Working for the agency does indeed open doors. In comparison to other local transit authorities, WMATA provides better pay as well as valuable opportunities for training and advancement. However, applicants with criminal backgrounds have found themselves repeatedly barred from such prospects.

Since 2011, WMATA has employed an overly broad and unnecessarily punitive criminal background check policy that permanently bars applicants with certain convictions from employment, regardless of the age of the conviction or the unrelatedness of the conviction to the job. In the DC Metro area, African Americans are more likely to have convictions due to a long history of racially discriminatory law enforcement practices. WMATA’s policy strikes a hard blow against a population that has already been disproportionately impacted by the economic downturn. Populations returning from prison, who have paid their debt to society, face a barrage of difficulties that derive indirectly from their criminal records. Often referred to as collateral consequences, these challenges arise when applying for public benefits, seeking affordable housing, or gaining the employment that is necessary for them to rebuild their lives and support their families.
washlaw ap team with plaintiffs
On July 30, 2014, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, along with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the law firm of Arnold and Porter, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of nine named plaintiffs against WMATA and three of its contractors, arguing that WMATA’s policies violate federal civil rights laws for its discriminatory impact on African American employees and applicants.

These overly harsh and restrictive policies have had a real-life impact on our plaintiffs. On a windy day in July, we met with plaintiff Erick Little on the Montgomery County field where he coaches Pop Warner football. That Sunday, he had taken time of out his schedule to work with little leaguers who needed extra help before the beginning of the season. His players often stay behind and chat with him about their lives before heading home. After coaching football in his community for 15 years, Little has become a father figure and pillar of support for many of his players, who come to him for advice about navigating issues of home, school, and football alike.
erick little
Just a year earlier, Little applied for and received a contingent offer of employment for a position as a bus operator at WMATA. Although he had been told by his interviewer that WMATA would not hold a decades-old conviction against him, his offer was ultimately rescinded on the basis of a 1987 drug conviction. In 1987, Little was 19 years old - not much older (or necessarily wiser) than some of the players he coaches. When WMATA rescinded its offer of employment, Erick felt ashamed and disappointed. As he recounted, “WMATA sent me, and many others, the message that the first mistake you make is the only thing that matters.” The young men on his team are part of the reason why Little has elected to join this lawsuit. He acknowledges that he made some bad decisions at age 19, but wants to show WMATA and his mentees that “past mistakes can be overcome if you are willing to work hard to turn your life around.”

Despite being barred from a position with WMATA, Little has opened other doors on his own. He is presently employed by Montgomery County as a driver and says that he enjoys his job because he genuinely “loves driving.” WMATA’s policy of shutting out qualified applicants and experienced employees for the mistakes of their past is ultimately a loss to their own operation. Rather, a commitment to safety and performance can co-exist with respect for equal opportunity and civil rights.

Matthew Handley
is the Director of Litigation at the Washington Lawyers' Committee



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