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U.S. Supreme Court Issues Ruling in Background Screening Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a background screening program used by a government agency does not violate employee privacy rights.

In the case, 28 employees of the California Institute of Technology, under contract to do work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), claim that the government’s screening policy is too intrusive. The policy was implemented in 2004 under a government homeland security directive.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the policy of conducting background screening on existing, low-security contract employees was too invasive. The policy allows the government to collect any information from any source including schools, former employers, businesses, and personal friends. According to the government’s policy, part of the background screening includes “open-ended questions” asked to encourage sources to reveal any adverse information about a person’s “employment, residence, or activities.”

(For more background on this case, see "U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Background Screening Case.")

The appeals court ruled that the background screening requirements raise privacy issues and do not seem to further the government’s legitimate interests because they target existing, low-level employees, some of whom have worked for the same company for more than 20 years.

The government appealed the appellate ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that the screening requirements are valid and can help the government make informed employment decisions. For example, when addressing the open-ended questions used as part of the screening process, the Court noted that the “questions are reasonably aimed at identifying capable employees who will faithfully conduct the government’s business.” The Court went on to say that “asking an applicant’s designated references broad questions about job suitability is an appropriate tool for separating strong candidates from weak ones.”

The Court also noted that the methods used by the agency are pervasive in both the private and public sector. And it disagreed that the government should ask only questions that seem to be relevant or reasonable to the public. In the written opinion of the case, the Court said that “we reject the argument that the government, when it requests job-related personal information in an employment background check, has a constitutional burden to demonstrate that its questions are ‘necessary’ or the least restrictive means of furthering its interests.”NASA v Nelson SCOTUS.pdf

♦ Photo of U.S. Supreme Court bylaura padgett/Flickr