Fotolia TrainA class action lawsuit has been filed against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority on behalf of nine African American men who say the agency’s criminal background screening policy violates their civil rights.

The suit alleges that Metro has an “overly broad, unjustifiably rigid and unduly harsh” employee screening policy that disproportionately bars well-qualified black workers from jobs with the agency. The suit also names contractors Diamond Transportation, Executive Personnel Services and First Transit as co-defendants.

“The policy disqualifies many job applicants and employees based on criminal history that is not related to the job at issue or occurred so long ago — in some cases, 20 or 30 years in the past — that it is irrelevant to any fair determination of employee honesty, reliability or safety,” according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court.  The lawsuit comes as some public employers have passed “ban the box” legislation, preventing employers from asking about prior convictions on job applications.

The nine plaintiffs say they were fired from jobs or denied employment with Metro after the transit authority conducted a criminal background check. Most of the men have been convicted of nonviolent criminal drug felonies, but some have also been found guilty of assault, robbery or brandishing a firearm, according to the complaint.  There could be 150 or more other plaintiffs, said Matthew Handley, director of litigation for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which is representing the men along with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Arnold & Porter.

The civil rights concern, Handley said, is most worrisome for applicants who may have been disqualified because of a past nonviolent drug conviction. African Americans account for more than 90 percent of drug convictions in D.C., even though usage rates are about the same for blacks and whites, according to a 2013 study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee.