Nov 16, 2009

Refusing to Hire Based on Bankruptcy

The economic downturn has caused a lot of numbers to decline, such as take home pay, retirement savings, bank account balances, and home equity. But at least two numbers have been skyrocketing recently: the unemployment rate, which is higher than it's been in more than 25 years (10.2%), and the number of personal bankruptcies filed, which surged past the one million mark for the first three quarters of this year, and is expected to exceed 1.4 million by the end of 2009.

Considered together, these numbers mean that more job seekers are likely to have a bankruptcy filing on their record. Bankruptcy discrimination is illegal, according to 11. U.S.C. Section 525. However, this protection includes a large exception that leaves most job seekers out in the cold. Although government employers may not discriminate in hiring, firing, or other aspects of employment against those who have declared bankruptcy, private employers have more leeway. They may not fire employees because they have declared bankruptcy, but the statute doesn't explicitly prohibit refusing to hire someone who has declared bankruptcy. Nearly every court to interpret this statute has found that private employers may legally reject an applicant solely because of a past bankruptcy.

Plaintiffs who bring these cases don't have much chance of winning -- unless they can prove that they were actually hired. If the applicant manages to become an employee before the employer rejects him or her, that employee may have a viable case.

A case decided last month by a federal district court in Florida is a good example. In Myers v. TooJay's Management Corporation, Eric Myers claimed that he was denied employment by TooJay's once the company received his credit report and learned that he had filed for bankruptcy. Both parties in the case filed for summary judgment, and Myers lost his claim for discrimination in hiring. The judge found that the statute doesn't prohibit refusal to hire based on bankruptcy, so Myers couldn't win on that allegation.

However, the judge found that Myers was entitled to continue to trial on his claim that he was actually hired by TooJay's, then fired once the company learned about his bankruptcy. Everyone agrees that Myers interviewed for the position, then spent two days in an on-the-job evaluation. When the evaluation ended, Myers was told that he had performed well and was asked to sign a number of documents, including a W-4 form, an I-9 form, an order form for an employee uniform, a nondisclosure agreement, and acknowledgment forms for the company's sexual harassment policy and employee handbook. Myers said the manager he spoke to made him an unconditional offer of employment and discussed his start date, hours, and salary range. The manager denied making these statements, and said that he told Myers any offer of employment was contingent on passing a background check. (Myers signed a consent to the background check along with the other forms.) After Myers gave notice at his old job, he received an adverse action form from TooJay's, stating that the company was rescinding its employment offer because he had filed for bankruptcy.

Based on these facts, the judge decided that a jury could find that Myers had been hired, and was therefore an employee protected from bankruptcy discrimination. So, Myers will have his day in court. TooJay's apparently has an official policy of not hiring anyone who has filed for bankruptcy. This seems overly punitive, given the many legitimate reasons why someone might declare bankruptcy, especially in this economic climate. But no matter where you come down on this issue, there's a lesson for everyone here: If you believe you haven't yet hired someone, don't ask that person to sign employment forms. Save the first-day paperwork for the first day of work.   

For more information on firing employees, see Nolo's Firing Employees & Employee Resignations area.