California’s New Law of Fair Shakes

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, take note.

Earlier this month, California enacted the Fair Chance Act.

This means that, beginning next year, many employers can no longer ask about or look into criminal convictions until they’ve decided a person is right for the job. That means they can’t ask about convictions anymore on a job application. It also means they can’t run a background check until they’ve made a conditional offer of employment.

Also, once employers make a conditional offer and run someone’s record, they can’t deny the job based on a conviction unless they first analyze the relationship between the job and conviction. What kind of job is it, after all? Does it have anything to do with the conviction? How long ago was that, anyway? There must be a “direct and adverse” relationship between the two to justify the decision.

Employers don’t have to share their analysis with applicants, but they must advise of their decision in writing. When they do, they must identify the relevant conviction, attach a copy of the report they ran on the person, and explain that he or she has at least five business days to show why the report isn’t accurate or why they should still get the job based on rehabilitation or mitigating circumstances. Employers must consider any evidence they submit. If they still decide to deny the job, they must let the person know in writing, refer him or her to any existing procedure they have for challenging it, and give them notice of the right to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

What hasn’t changed? Employers still can’t consider arrests that didn’t lead to conviction, unless charges are still pending or the arrest was for certain drug or sex offenses and the job is in a healthcare facility that requires access to drugs or patients. Nor can employers consider convictions that have been sealed, dismissed, or otherwise expunged.

The law will apply to employers with five or more employees. It exempts those who must conduct background checks by law. For more on the new law and its passage, see here and here. For the text itself, see here.

Expunging Criminal Records in California

It ain’t just for kids, after all. Anyone who’s eligible can petition to expunge a criminal conviction in California. Here’s what you need to know.

Like we explained last week, the term “expungement” is a misnomer because it doesn’t erase the conviction or wipe the slate clean. But that’s still how lawyers and judges will refer to it. Technically, it’s called a dismissal under Penal Code section 1203.4 or other such section. So you’re still going to have a rap sheet, in other words.

But it will add a line item to your rap sheet that shows the case was dismissed. If you had pleaded guilty before, the court will permit you to withdraw your plea. If you were convicted at trial, the court will set aside that verdict. Either way, the court will then dismiss the case.

In most situations, that means you can legally and truthfully say that you don’t have a conviction. That can help on a job application, for example, though the rule is different for public employers like law-enforcement agencies. In all situations, you can at least say that the conviction was dismissed, because it was.

[Update: Beginning January 1, 2018, many employers will no longer be able to ask about convictions on a job application. But there’s more to it than that, as we explain here.]

Most employers aren’t even supposed to ask about convictions that have been dismissed, and they’re not supposed to rely on them in their decision-making. The exceptions include public employers like law-enforcement agencies.

Most licensing boards, on the other hand, can ask about them, and you should answer by disclosing both the conviction and the dismissal. They’re not supposed to deny a license basely solely on a conviction that has been expunged or dismissed.

You’re eligible to expunge a felony or misdemeanor if you were sentenced to probation or the county jail. If you successfully completed probation or had it terminated early then you are entitled to the dismissal. If you didn’t then you can still win if you can persuade the court of your rehabilitation. If you went to county jail on a felony then you’re eligible one or two years after the end of your sentence; it depends on whether you served a split sentence that included post-release supervision (one year) or a full sentence in jail (two years). Or, if you didn’t get probation on a misdemeanor then you’re eligible if it’s been over a year since you were sentenced, and you’ve completed that sentence and otherwise done well.

You’re not eligible if you were sentenced to state prison, unless you would go to county jail for the same offense today or the court suspended the execution of your prison sentence and put you on probation instead. You’re also not eligible for certain sex offenses involving minors, including child pornography or statutory rape if you were 21 or older and the minor was younger than sixteen.

So how do you do it? Here’s a guide from the official website of the California courts that can help you do it yourself. But you should check your own county’s rules and forms, too. Here’s the link for Orange County, for example. Or, if you can afford it, get a lawyer. He or she will navigate the process for you and help you put your best foot forward. Plus, you may not ever have to go to court yourself.

Throwing Pitches in a Civil Case

Make that Pitchess with an extra s—as in Pitchess motions. In California, they’re how you ask a court to order the production of a police officer’s personnel file in litigation.

We’ve written about them in the context of criminal cases, but the procedure’s the same in civil cases, as a court of appeal recently explained in an employment case.

A retired police officer had sued his police department for unlawful retaliation. He said the trouble started after he had served 18 years on the force, when he blew the whistle on two officers for filing false reports. He was branded a snitch and ostracized. Even his calls for help in the field would go ignored. He transferred divisions and applied for 14 different promotions but was denied each time in favor of someone less qualified. So he sued.

To prove his case, he moved to obtain the personnel files of the officers who were promoted ahead of him. He argued their records were material to his case because the department claimed to have promoted the more-qualified candidates.

The trial court, however, denied his motion because the records belonged to third parties who had nothing to do with the alleged retaliation. That was the department’s argument, anyway, and the court accepted it.

But that’s not the law.

Because the records were material to the plaintiff’s case, the agency had to produce them for the court to decide what was relevant and discoverable. It didn’t matter that it was a civil case, not a criminal one. It didn’t matter that the records pertained to people who were innocent of wrongdoing. What mattered is that the records were material to the plaintiff’s case, and there was no denying that.

Although the trial court could take a number of steps to balance the rights of third parties, it couldn’t refuse to review the records and test their relevance.

So the court of appeal reversed and sent the case back.

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