Hawaii Case Examines Criminal History Rational Relationship Requirements
Posted: February 02, 2015
On January 16, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued an opinion that should capture the attention of employers hiring in that state.
Before diving deeper into the case, it is important to understand the legal landscape in Hawaii as it relates to the consideration of criminal history information in employment decisions. In 1998, Hawaii was the first state to pass a ban the box law as part of a larger initiative to afford protections to those individuals with an arrest or court record. Under Hawaii Revised Statutes §378-2, employers may not refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against individuals based on any protected class which includes an individual’s arrest or court record. HRS §378-2.5 further provides that employers may not inquire into an individual’s criminal history information until a conditional offer of employment has been extended, and then may withdraw that conditional offer only if the conviction record “bears a rational relationship to the duties and responsibilities of the position.” The law also limits employers from considering conviction information beyond a ten year period.
The case at issue stems from 2007 when the plaintiff applied for a radiological technician position with the defendant. According to the court opinion, the defendant rejected the plaintiff’s application “based solely on [the plaintiff’s] prior conviction for possession with intent to distribute crystal methamphetamine.” Following this rejection, the plaintiff filed a complaint with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission in 2008 claiming the defendant’s actions violated HRS §378-2. However, the Commission found that “the medical center was lawfully entitled to consider [the plaintiff’s] 2001 felony drug conviction in accordance with HRS Section 378-2.5(1), and the conviction disqualified [the plaintiff] from the position.”
Undeterred, the plaintiff filed suit in 2009 claiming the defendant violated HRS §378-2 and article I, Section 5 of the Hawaii Constitution. The Circuit Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and the Intermediate Court of Appeals affirmed. The plaintiff then appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Hawaii Supreme Court’s Decision
The Hawaii Supreme Court reversed in part the prior decision, finding that, as a matter of law, the defendant did not establish a rational relationship between the felony conviction and the duties and responsibilities of the radiological technician position. Thus, granting summary judgment with respect to the HRS §378-2 claim was inappropriate (the Court upheld the granting of summary judgment with respect to the Constitutional claim). The Court remanded the case to the Circuit Court for further proceedings.
In so holding, the Court reviewed past decisions and the legislative history of HRS §378-2.5, noting the history “reveals that the legislature chose language broad enough to allow reasonable consideration of a record of conviction, but narrow enough to place a meaningful restraint on unlawful discrimination.” Further, the Court opined that the purpose of the law “is to encourage the rehabilitation of convicted persons by eliminating disqualification from employment…solely by reason of a prior conviction of a crime.”
The Court also reviewed the formal job description of the radiological technician position and found that there was “no indication” that radiological technicians working for the defendant “administer or even assist patients with any type of drugs.” Since the “felony drug conviction simply has no bearing on an individual’s ability to perform the primary imaging duties” required of a radiological technician, the Court determined there was “no rational relationship between the drug conviction and the [position’s] core duties” that would have entitled the defendant to disqualify the plaintiff from prospective employment.
Notably, the Court disregarded one of the defendant’s arguments – that the plaintiff would treat vulnerable patient groups – stating that if the law “extended so broadly that any contact with the elderly or young children created a rational relationship to a prior drug conviction, then all individuals with prior drug convictions could be disqualified from any job that dealt with the public at large.”
In light of this decision, employers in Hawaii should review their hiring criteria as it relates to the consideration of criminal history information closely with qualified legal counsel.