A proposed class-action lawsuit filed against Whole Foods Market Group, Inc., Amazon.com, Inc., and Cornucopia Logistics, LLC (“Defendants”) is one of the latest lawsuits alleging that employers violated applicable laws during the hiring process. We have previously discussed other recent lawsuits filed against employers, including an additional case against Amazon for allegations of background check disclosure violations.
Former Job Candidate Turned Plaintiff
Let’s look at what led up to this lawsuit against the Defendants.
According to a recent court order in response to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the amended complaint, plaintiff Henry Franklin served nearly 25 years in prison for a second-degree murder conviction. The State released him on parole in 2018. In April 2019, Franklin applied for a delivery worker job with Cornucopia Logistics, a vendor that has a contract with Amazon to provide delivery workers for its subsidiary, Whole Foods.
The court order notes that Franklin contends that the job application, which Cornucopia posted on a recruiting website, stated that applicants must consent to a background check as part of the job application process. Amazon and Whole Foods claim Franklin answered “no” when asked whether he had any prior convictions as part of his application. Further, the court order also notes:
“Shortly after Franklin completed the online application, he alleges that he received a letter from Amazon informing him that Amazon had performed a background check and would make a final decision on his application in ten days…Franklin alleges that he received another letter from Amazon two weeks later, informing him that his application had been denied “in whole or in part” due to information contained in the Background Report.”
According to the court order, Franklin filed a first amended complaint in September 2020 alleging that all the Defendants unlawfully discriminated against him based on his criminal history ad that they used discriminatory screening policies and practices in violation of:
- New York State Human Rights Law (NSHRL)
- New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL)
- New York State Fair Credit Reporting Act (NYFCRA)
Employers Seek Motion to Dismiss
The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit based on Failure to State a Claim.
The Court disagreed and denied the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. The Court held that Franklin stated a claim of employment discrimination under the NYSHRL. According to the Court’s order, “Section 296(15) of NYSHRL makes it unlawful to deny employment to an individual ‘by reason of his having been convicted of one or more criminal offenses . . .’ when such denial is in violation of the provisions of [Article 23-A] of the N.Y. Correction Law” unless one of two exceptions applies:
1. There is a “direct relationship” between the criminal offense and the employment sought.
2. Hiring someone with a criminal background poses an “unreasonable risk” to the public.
The court notes that NYSHRL does not prohibit the consideration of an applicant’s criminal history in deciding whether to hire a person but can only consider the applicant’s criminal history if the employer can show that one (or both) of the exceptions apply. According to the Court, Franklin’s complaint sufficiently alleged why neither exception applies in this case.
“As the position at issue involved driving to deliver groceries, and, as Franklin asserts, he was never convicted of a vehicular offense, the Court finds that Franklin has adequately alleged that there is no direct relationship between his conviction and his fitness or ability to deliver Whole Foods groceries.”
Additionally, the Court found that Franklin adequately pled that the “unreasonable risk” to persons or property exception does not apply. According to the Court order, “The Court is sympathetic to Defendants’ likely position that they do not want a convicted murderer delivering groceries to their customers’ homes. But considering the allegations in the complaint in the light most favorable to Franklin, he has adequately alleged that he is rehabilitated and no longer poses a threat to the public.”
Nearly 25 years have passed between his conviction and the job application. Franklin contended that because the State of New York paroled him, the State had determined that he did not pose a risk to anyone’s property, safety, or welfare. Franklin also contended that he is older now, and individuals who know him can attest to his rehabilitation. “Taken together, those allegations support the conclusion that Franklin has adequately pled that the public risk exception does not apply to him.”
The Court held that because Franklin has adequately alleged that neither of the NYSHRL exceptions applies, he has adequately alleged facts that can infer a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation. Further, the Court states that because Franklin has stated a claim under the NYSHRL, he has necessarily stated a claim under NYCHRL.
The Court also addressed the Defendants’ argument that the Defendants had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not hiring him because Franklin lied on his application. The Court held that alleged legitimate reasons for an adverse employment action cannot be considered on a motion to dismiss – but can only be considered on a motion for summary judgment or trial.
The Case Moves Forward
At this stage in litigation, the case is allowed to proceed. Even though the Court denied the motion to dismiss, it did not rule on the merits of the Plaintiff’s arguments. Instead, the Court held that the Plaintiff sufficiently stated a claim for the case to continue. The case is being referred to a mediation program as the next stage in litigation.
We will continue to monitor the status of this case. Employers should consult their legal team for details on how this case may impact them.