On January 29, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Gilberg v. California Check Cashing Stores, LLC instructed employers about the importance of complying with background check disclosure requirements found in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Pursuant to the federal statute, employers who want to obtain a consumer report (commonly referred to as a background check report) on a job candidate must provide to the candidate a “clear and conspicuous disclosure” about the report in a document that consists “solely of the disclosure.” 15 U.S.C. § 1681b(b)(2)(A).

But when Desiree Gilberg applied for a job with CheckSmart Financial, she received something different. First Gilberg completed a three-page form containing an employment application, a math screening and an employment history verification. She then signed a separate form entitled, “Disclosure Regarding Background Investigation.”

The one-page form included the required FCRA disclosure as well as mandated state disclosures for California, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.

Gilberg worked for CheckSmart for five months before voluntarily leaving the job. She then filed a putative class action against the company, alleging that it failed to make proper disclosures as set forth in both the FCRA and California’s Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (ICRAA).

A district court sided with the employer and dismissed the case. The judge agreed with CheckSmart that its disclosure form complied with both statutes. Gilberg appealed to the Ninth Circuit. She argued that the standalone requirement didn’t permit the combination of state and federal disclosures as CheckSmart had tried.

Considering the issue, the Ninth Circuit recalled a 2017 decision in Syed v. M-I, LLC. In that case, which also involved the standalone requirement, the federal appellate panel held that a prospective employer violated the FCRA when it included a liability waiver in the same document as the mandated disclosure. The statute means what it says, the court emphasized: the required disclosure must be in a document that “consist[s] ‘solely’ of the disclosure.”

In an effort to distinguish its disclosure from that in the Syed case, CheckSmart told the court that the additional information in its form actually furthered the FCRA’s purpose.

“We disagree,” the court wrote. “Syed’s holding and statutory analysis were not limited to liability waivers; Syed considered the standalone requirement with regard to any surplusage. Syed grounded its analysis of the liability waiver in its statutory analysis of the word ‘solely,’ noting that FCRA should not be read to have implied exceptions, especially when the exception – in that case, a liability waiver – was contrary to FCRA’s purpose. Syed also cautioned ‘against finding additional, implied exceptions’ simply because Congress had created one exception. Consistent with Syed, we decline CheckSmart’s invitation to create an implied exception here.”

Plain meaning trumps purpose, the Ninth Circuit said, rejecting the employer’s contention that its disclosure form was consistent with the intent of the FCRA. Since the surplus language included disclosures required by various state laws that were inapplicable to Gilberg, the court was unable to understand how the CheckSmart form comported with the purpose of the federal statute.

“Because the presence of this extraneous information is as likely to confuse as it is to inform, it does not further FCRA’s purpose,” the court declared.

“Syed holds that the standalone requirement forecloses implicit exceptions,” the panel wrote. “The statute’s one express exception does not apply here, and CheckSmart’s disclosure contains extraneous and irrelevant information beyond what FCRA itself requires. The disclosure, therefore, violates FCRA’s standalone document requirement. Even if congressional purpose were relevant, much of the surplusage in CheckSmart’s disclosure form does not effectuate the purposes of the FCRA.”

In addition to ruling that the district court erred in concluding that the employer’s disclosure form satisfied the FCRA’s standalone document requirement, the Ninth Circuit also held that CheckSmart’s disclosure form was not “clear and conspicuous” under either FCRA or ICRAA.

The court grudgingly found the form to be “conspicuous” (despite characterizing the font as “inadvisably” small and cramped) but held it was not “clear.” The disclosure contained language a reasonable person would not understand, the court said, and its content would confuse a reader with the combination of federal and state disclosures.

As “CheckSmart’s disclosure form was not both clear and conspicuous, the district erred in granting CheckSmart’s motion for summary judgment with regard to the FCRA and ICRAA ‘clear and conspicuous’ requirements,” the panel wrote. The Ninth Circuit reversed dismissal of Gilberg’s complaint and remanded the case to the California district court. (As of this writing, there is a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc pending before the 9th Circuit.)

For employers, the Ninth Circuit opinion could not be more clear: ensure that the FCRA disclosure form provided to job candidates contains no extraneous or surplus language. The decision also provides an important reminder about keeping disclosures forms clear and conspicuous in order to comply with both federal and state laws.

Pursuant to the federal statute, employers who want to obtain a consumer report (commonly referred to as a background check report) on a job candidate must provide to the candidate a “clear and conspicuous disclosure” about the report in a document that consists “solely of the disclosure.” 15 U.S.C. § 1681b(b)(2)(A).

But when Desiree Gilberg applied for a job with CheckSmart Financial, she received something different. First Gilberg completed a three-page form containing an employment application, a math screening and an employment history verification. She then signed a separate form entitled, “Disclosure Regarding Background Investigation.”

The one-page form included the required FCRA disclosure as well as mandated state disclosures for California, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.

Gilberg worked for CheckSmart for five months before voluntarily leaving the job. She then filed a putative class action against the company, alleging that it failed to make proper disclosures as set forth in both the FCRA and California’s Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (ICRAA).

A district court sided with the employer and dismissed the case. The judge agreed with CheckSmart that its disclosure form complied with both statutes. Gilberg appealed to the Ninth Circuit. She argued that the standalone requirement didn’t permit the combination of state and federal disclosures as CheckSmart had tried.

Considering the issue, the Ninth Circuit recalled a 2017 decision in Syed v. M-I, LLC. In that case, which also involved the standalone requirement, the federal appellate panel held that a prospective employer violated the FCRA when it included a liability waiver in the same document as the mandated disclosure. The statute means what it says, the court emphasized: the required disclosure must be in a document that “consist[s] ‘solely’ of the disclosure.”

In an effort to distinguish its disclosure from that in the Syed case, CheckSmart told the court that the additional information in its form actually furthered the FCRA’s purpose.

“We disagree,” the court wrote. “Syed’s holding and statutory analysis were not limited to liability waivers; Syed considered the standalone requirement with regard to any surplusage. Syed grounded its analysis of the liability waiver in its statutory analysis of the word ‘solely,’ noting that FCRA should not be read to have implied exceptions, especially when the exception – in that case, a liability waiver – was contrary to FCRA’s purpose. Syed also cautioned ‘against finding additional, implied exceptions’ simply because Congress had created one exception. Consistent with Syed, we decline CheckSmart’s invitation to create an implied exception here.”

Plain meaning trumps purpose, the Ninth Circuit said, rejecting the employer’s contention that its disclosure form was consistent with the intent of the FCRA. Since the surplus language included disclosures required by various state laws that were inapplicable to Gilberg, the court was unable to understand how the CheckSmart form comported with the purpose of the federal statute.

“Because the presence of this extraneous information is as likely to confuse as it is to inform, it does not further FCRA’s purpose,” the court declared.

“Syed holds that the standalone requirement forecloses implicit exceptions,” the panel wrote. “The statute’s one express exception does not apply here, and CheckSmart’s disclosure contains extraneous and irrelevant information beyond what FCRA itself requires. The disclosure therefore violates FCRA’s standalone document requirement. Even if congressional purpose were relevant, much of the surplusage in CheckSmart’s disclosure form does not effectuate the purposes of the FCRA.”

In addition to ruling that the district court erred in concluding that the employer’s disclosure form satisfied the FCRA’s standalone document requirement, the Ninth Circuit also held that CheckSmart’s disclosure form was not “clear and conspicuous” under either FCRA or ICRAA.

The court grudgingly found the form to be “conspicuous” (despite characterizing the font as “inadvisably” small and cramped) but held it was not “clear.” The disclosure contained language a reasonable person would not understand, the court said, and its content would confuse a reader with the combination of federal and state disclosures.

As “CheckSmart’s disclosure form was not both clear and conspicuous, the district erred in granting CheckSmart’s motion for summary judgment with regard to the FCRA and ICRAA ‘clear and conspicuous’ requirements,” the panel wrote. The Ninth Circuit reversed dismissal of Gilberg’s complaint and remanded the case to the California district court. (As of this writing, there is a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc pending before the 9th Circuit.)

For employers, the Ninth Circuit opinion could not be more clear: ensure that the FCRA disclosure form provided to job candidates contains no extraneous or surplus language. The decision also provides an important reminder about keeping disclosures forms clear and conspicuous in order to comply with both federal and state laws.