Class Action Challenges Background Checks

Employment, Racial Justice

Class Action Lawsuit Challenges Massachusetts’ Use of Decades Old Juvenile Court Records To Permanently Bar Employees From Childcare Work

Lawsuit Alleges Blanket Ban Disproportionately Affects Employees of Color 

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) and Lichten & Liss-Riordan P.C. filed a class action lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court against the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) challenging the unconstitutional and discriminatory use of overly-broad employment background checks that have resulted in mass terminations of employees of color across the Commonwealth.  The lawsuit challenges EEC’s use of juvenile court records – which in many cases are decades old – to permanently bar individuals from childcare employment, a practice that disproportionately affects employees of color.

At issue is a recent state regulation that imposes a lifetime ban on employment for childcare workers based on juvenile court records. The regulations do not provide employees any individualized assessment or process to appeal the lifetime-ban.

This lawsuit is brought by Tara Gregory, a Black woman with an exemplary record in childcare work for the past two decades. Earlier this year, EEC sent Ms. Gregory a notice barring her for life from such employment without any avenue for redress because of a juvenile delinquency adjudication from 33 years ago. In 1986, Ms. Gregory had contact with the juvenile justice system as a result of a fight with a group of girls, in which she was alleged to have kicked someone. “I love working with children and I have devoted my entire professional life to childcare,” said Ms. Gregory, now 49.  “I never imagined that my whole career could be taken from me because of something that happened when I was a sixteen-year-old. What happened to giving people second chances?”

In her lawsuit, Ms. Gregory seeks to represent a class of similarly-situated employees of color. The lawsuit describes how, because of over-policing and over-incarceration in minority communities, employees of color are disproportionately harmed by EEC’s regulation. Racial and ethnic imbalances have plagued the American juvenile justice system from its start in the early 20th century. Such disparities persist today, both nationwide and in Massachusetts. Black youth in Massachusetts are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated as compared to white youth, a disparity that grew by 66 percent from 2001 to 2015.  See Black Disparities in Youth Incarceration, The Sentencing Project (Sept. 12, 2017).

“As a state that prides itself on being reform-minded and cognizant of the racial disparities that exist in the criminal justice system, this regulation is antithetical to those beliefs,” said Sophia Hall, Supervising Attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights. “The Massachusetts regulation is actually more onerous than the related federal regulation, which does not consider juvenile offenses at all.”

“EEC’s background check policy is unconstitutional, violates state anti-discrimination laws, and is all-around a poor business practice,” said Harold Lichten, a founding partner of Lichten & Liss-Riordan P.C. who is leading a team of attorneys representing Ms. Gregory and a class of similarly-situated employees of color on a pro bono basis. “The Commonwealth through this regulation is eliminating a talented and diverse workforce on the basis of stale juvenile justice histories that bear no relation to current fitness.”  Attorney Lichten added that these decisions are being made without the input of the childcare employers, who risk losing critical funding if they fail to comply with this new background check regulation.

The complaint is available here:

Gregory v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Class Action Complaint)