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Success Story Archives
What does your public record say about you?
Dennis Teague's case was recently featured on a NBC Chicago news story. Here's the link:
Wisconsin is often highly regarded for its long tradition of open public records and the government transparency that results from them. But now, those open records are being used for more than transparency in government.
They are instead being used to make important decisions about people: giving them a job or renting an apartment to them, for example. This would not necessarily be a problem except that often, these records are inaccurate or they are relatively accurate but are misleading because of the way they’re presented.
Numerous problems are created for people because of the release of these incorrect or misleading records by state agencies in Wisconsin – especially since background checking has become an everyday practice for employers and landlords.
While it can’t control the use and misuse of public records, the government can at least provide records that don’t mislead and that are accurate.
An incorrect record is where Dennis Teague’s story and a Legal Action lawsuit begins.
Teague is one example of a person whose life has been hijacked by this record problem.
Teague grew up in Milwaukee. After going away to college in Tennessee, he graduated in 2007 and returned home to Milwaukee to build a career. He applied for jobs at numerous companies, like Kohl’s, Coca-Cola, and US Bank, and says he was getting a lot of interviews – but wasn’t getting hired anywhere.
“I didn’t expect to get rich or even make 40 to 50,000 dollars my first year out of college,” says Teague. “But I did expect to get some kind of job following all the interviews.”
Teague didn’t find out until March 2008 that a criminal record was being delivered to prospective employers when they ran background checks on him.
Teague learned this when he called yet another local employer to follow-up on a job interview he’d had with them. This time, a person in human resources told Teague, “We can’t possibly hire someone with your background.”
What background? Teague had never done anything wrong. With some checking about the “background,” as the H.R. person called it, Teague pieced-together that a relative had used his name while Teague was away at college. The relative had racked up many “marks” and was arrested numerous times on a slew of charges – all while using Teague’s name.
Even though Teague has never done anything wrong, all his prospective employers were getting a criminal record about him when they conducted a background check.
This is the point where Teague contacted Legal Action’s Road to Opportunity Project. One of the project attorneys, Sheila Sullivan, took Teague’s case. For some time, she had been seeing clients with similar problems: people couldn’t find jobs or were being fired because of a background record problem. Sometimes, the records being released by the State were somewhat accurate but were still misleading and other times, they were simply all wrong. In Teague’s case, it was all wrong.
Sullivan learned that the State knows that it is systematically reporting information about a person other than Teague and about others in similar situations. But, it has steadfastly refused to change its reporting practices saying that it would be too burdensome to change them. The State’s practice of knowingly releasing inaccurate information is the heart of Teague’s lawsuit which is now working its way through the court system.
Teague’s case is an example of a disturbing trend amongst our clients: “there’s a new class of people whose very status is questioned,” because of the release of these records says Sullivan. The numbers in the class are growing, as one in four American adults currently has some kind of “mark” on their record.
The State responded to our lawsuit by adding a one-sentence note to the pages and pages of information that they are producing and releasing about Teague. This note, buried in reams of charging information, says that Teague is not the man who was arrested on these charges.
The State has also provided Teague with a couple of letters that explain the records problem and has instructed him to give these letters to the prospective employers when he feels he’s got a chance at a job or if it’s the kind of job he believes will run a background check right away.
Neither of these proposed solutions by the State has worked. Teague still can’t get a job. Teague suspects that prospective employers don’t spend enough time with his application to figure it out – to see that the information isn’t his.
“And why should they? They get hundreds of applications and are probably looking for ways to whittle down the pile,” says Teague. “They run a background check and say, ‘we’ll get back to you’ and when they never get back to me, what else could it be?”
“It’s been three years and has taken a part of my life,” says Teague.
Teague wants the State and the citizens of Milwaukee to know there are real people behind all these marks put on public records. Teague feels that, “for (the State), it’s typical for a young black male from the North side of Milwaukee to have a record like this one.” And so, Teague believes there is little impetus for them to change policy and alter their reporting practices.
“But it simply not fair to be hindered, to have false information presented” to prospective employers, Teague says.
“But I’m not giving up, I’m not doing this just for me, but for all the people before me who had just given up, and all the people who are going to come after me. Giving this false info, confusing matters in a criminal record, especially when it comes to employment, but also when looking for places to live, is hindering lives,” says Teague.