When the Only Crime Is Having a Common Name

NBC Chicago's Target 5 looks at two cases where innocent men are denied unemployment because someone else with the same name has a criminal background

Samuel M. Jackson, of the Chicago area, already has it rough it enough when it comes to name recognition.

But comparisons with the same-named famous actor likely sounded wonderful to him after three other Samuel Jacksons got mixed up into his criminal background report. They're Samuel Jacksons all convicted of sex offenses; two of whom are currently in prison.

"He had a background check company that ran a background report that was grossly inaccurate. Almost laughably so if it wasn’t so outrageous," said attorney Chris Wilmes, who represented the job-seeking Jackson in a lawsuit against the background check company InfoTrack. "He had a background check report that suggested he was a serious, serious sex offender and that he had committed crimes that merited life in prison."

Wilmes said his client has no criminal record. His only fault? Having a common name.

"People with common names -- there is a significant risk that they’re going to get a background check that has nothing to do with them that shows a criminal record that doesn’t exist. And it is going to harm them when they are trying to get employment," according to Paul Strauss of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, who also worked on the case against InfoTrack.

Samuel M. Jackson, the job-seeker, is white and was 26 years old when the background report was performed. The three Samuel Jacksons whose reports were attached to his name were all decades older, African American convicted sex offenders, two of whom were currently in prison. One of them is incarcerated for a rape that occurred when the job-seeking Jackson was only four years old.

"He was outraged that a background check company would be that sloppy with something that important," Wilmes said of his client.

InfoTrack did not return calls for comment by publication time, but did settle the lawsuit with the job-seeking Samuel M. Jackson. InfoTrack settled for $35,000 and corrected Jackson’s record.

But another example has no such happy ending yet in sight.

In Milwaukee, 29-year-old Dennis Teague has a 13-page criminal background report, riddled with gun and drug offenses. But Dennis Teague has never been arrested and has no criminal record.

"Dennis has done nothing wrong. He’s done absolutely, positively nothing wrong," said his lawyer, Jeff Myer of Legal Action of Wisconsin.

So why does Teague have the record of a career criminal? It goes back at least seven years, when a second cousin who was wanted by law enforcement used Dennis’ name when stopped by police.

"I didn’t do anything wrong, and that’s what I don’t understand right now today. It’s not me, I’m not a felon," Teague says.

Teague, who has a college degree, says the name-based background report delivered to prospective employers by the state of Wisconsin is standing in the way of his employment. He says scores of interviews that seemed promising went nowhere, which didn’t make sense until he says he discovered the misleading records blended with his report.

Teague says he feels like a lifetime of making the right choices is being tossed out with the state’s refusal to disseminate his actual record, which should be "no record."

"I feel like I’m just thrown out. For one, you’ve got to think about: no employer has the time to read 13 pages. So, they probably won’t know to look and say, ‘This is identity theft. Somebody stole his name,'" he explained.

“It’s just wrong for the government to be lying about their citizens," said attorney Myer. "There's no question that an African American male of Dennis' age who is looking for work, is seriously impacted when a criminal background check comes back and says anything other than "no record," and that's what Dennis is entitled to."

Teague is suing the state Department of Justice, asking that it change the way background information is disseminated, especially in the case of identity theft victims.

Wisconsin DoJ did not respond directly to NBC Chicago’s questions, but in court filings has said its system is based on the interests of law enforcement. If a citizen like Teague is impersonated by a criminal, who uses the clean name for an alias, police investigating a case may need to know that. It appears the state does not have a mechanism to produce one report for prospective employers, with a separate one for law enforcement.

In Illinois, an identity theft victim does have a mechanism that severs the thief’s record from his or hers. It is called the Criminal Identification Act.

Wisconsin did offer Teague a letter that confirms his identity is separate from that of his second cousin's, and that he has no criminal record. Teague said he can’t get far enough in an interview process to get much use of the letter.

"[Employers] don’t want to hear that. A lot of employees say, ’Oh , that wasn’t me, somebody used my name.’ They probably hear that all the time.. But with me, it’s the truth," said Teague.

Experts say these kind of incidents point to the need for all consumers to read their own background reports. Federal law requires notification if a job-seeker is denied employment based on a negative background report, but industry observers point out it is often impossible to know if that happens as required.

Consumer rights are laid out in the Fair Credit Reporting Act , but many job-seekers have no idea to what they are entitled if a company orders a background report on them.   

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse publishes a “Jobseeker’s Guide” that lays out frequently asked questions about employment background checks.

An industry group that represents some background check companies also answers frequently asked questions on the topic on its website

Target 5: Investigating the Issues That Affect You Most
Contact Us