U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Background Check Questions

The U.S. Supreme Court ducked deciding whether the U.S. Constitution protects individuals' right to privacy in personal information.  Instead, they "assumed" that there was such a protection and then decided that NASA's background questions were constitutional no matter what.  This provoked a concurrence in the judgment only from Justice Scalia (and another, short one from Justice Thomas), as both of them wanted the court to decide the constitution contains no such right.

The employment law issue here is whether NASA's questions were appropriate issues to ask applicants and employees. Most federal government employees are subjected to a standard background check. But contract employees were only recently added, following the 9/11 attacks.  NASA employed a number of contract employees at its Jet Propulsion Lab, and had to implement the checks for current employees, some of whom were employed for many years.

The questions included standard background information, but then asked about drug use, sales, etc., and asked for explanations if the employee admitted to involvement with illegal drugs.  After the employee answered the questions, the agency sent out questionnaires to landlords and references on a standard form. That standard form contains a number of questions to which plaintiffs objected:

the form asks if the reference has "any reason to question" the employee’s "honesty or trustworthiness." Id., at 97. It also asks if the reference knows of any "adverse information" concerning the employ. If "yes" is checked for any of these categories, the form calls for an explanation in the space below. ... That space is also available for providing "additional information" ("derogatory" or "favorable") that may bear on "suitability for government employment or a security clearance." Ibid.
The Ninth Circuit held that the request for an explanation by the employee about drug treatment or counseling did not serve a legitimate interest sufficient to overcome the employee's privacy rights. The court of appeals also decided that the reference forms contained open ended questions that infringed on privacy rights without sufficient linkage to the job.

On review, the Supreme Court decided that these questions do not infringe upon privacy rights even if they were protected by the Constitution:
The questions challenged by respondents are part of a standard employment background check of thesort used by millions of private employers. See Brief for Consumer Data Indus. Assn. et al. as
*** [W]e conclude that the chal-lenged portions of both SF–85 and Form 42 consist of reasonable, employment-related inquiries that further the Government’s interests in managing its internal opera-tions. See Engquist, 553 U. S., at 598–599; Whalen, 429 U. S., at 597–598. As to SF–85, the only part of the formchallenged here is its request for information about “any treatment or counseling received” for illegal-drug use within the previous year. The “treatment or counseling”question, however, must be considered in context. It is a followup to SF–85’s inquiry into whether the employee has“used, possessed, supplied, or manufactured illegal drugs” during the past year. The Government has good reason toask employees about their recent illegal-drug use. Like any employer, the Government is entitled to have itsprojects staffed by reliable, law-abiding persons who will“‘efficiently and effectively’” discharge their duties. See Engquist, supra, at 598–599. Questions about illegal-drug use are a useful way of figuring out which persons havethese characteristics.
Amici Curiae 2 (hereinafter CDIA Brief) ("[M]ore than 88% of U. S.companies . . . perform background checks on their employees"). The Government itself has been conducting employment investigations since the earliest days of the Republic.
The court's decision is important to private sector employers looking to justify personal questions and investigative consumer reports. The court recognized the legitimacy of these issues, including questions about drug use.  That should help private-sector and public employers with invasion of privacy claims related to drug testing and background investigations.

Of course the court did not deal with the issue of "adverse impact" discrimination claims here. But the defense to adverse impact is "job related and consistent with business necessity." Language in this opinion should help estasblish this defense.

The opinion is NASA v. Nelson and it is here.