Excerpted from a Wisconsin Examiner article by Erik Gunn

A Racine, Wisconsin manufacturer acted reasonably when it withdrew a job offer from an applicant convicted of domestic violence, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 4-3 decision, Justice Jill Karofsky stated that the company Cree Lighting didn’t discriminate unlawfully when it rescinded its offer to hire Derrick Palmer in 2015 after the company learned of his conviction three years earlier in violent attacks on his girlfriend that included strangulation and sexual assault.

Contingent on a background check, Cree Lighting had offered Palmer a job designing lighting arrays. When the background check turned up details of the convictions, Cree withdrew the offer.

The company asserted that Palmer’s job would have put him in close proximity with female coworkers and customers, and that his record showed he could endanger them. The company said about half of its 1,000 employees are women.

Rulings in the case have see-sawed back and forth starting with a discrimination complaint Palmer filed with the state Equal Rights Division. The state’s employment discrimination law says employers can’t disqualify a job applicant with a criminal record unless there is a “substantial relationship” between the crime and the job.

Although an equal rights investigator found Palmer’s complaint had merit, a state administrative law judge dismissed the complaint, ruling that Cree’s concerns were justified.

After Palmer appealed, the state Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC) overturned the judge’s ruling, concluding the domestic violence convictions weren’t relevant in the context of the job.

At the next stop, a Racine County circuit court judge overturned the LIRC ruling and sided with the company. The state appeals court reversed the judge, upholding the LIRC decision in Palmer’s favor.

The high court decision Thursday goes back to the LIRC decision, overturning it.

“Cree established that the circumstances surrounding Palmer’s 2013 convictions for domestic violence substantially relate to the circumstances of the position,” the ruling states — and the company “did not unlawfully discriminate against Palmer” when it canceled the job offer.

In LIRC’s ruling upholding the discrimination claim, the commission “determined that acts of domestic violence are practically immaterial to recidivism in the workplace because of their domestic nature,” Karofsky wrote. “LIRC’s assumption appears to be based on a common, but unsupported, belief that domestic batterers have a tendency to be violent only towards intimate partners.”

In contrast, the ruling cites testimony from a domestic violence expert that “shows crimes of domestic violence, like other violent crimes, indicate a character trait of willingness to use violence against others,” the ruling states, and also that “acts of domestic violence are rooted in power and control.”

Challenges from coworkers or demands or complaints from customers over prospective lighting designs “could lead Palmer to react, consistent with his past behavior, in a violent manner in order to exert his own power or control,” the ruling states.

With his “propensity to use violence,” along with the position’s lack of close supervision and the fact that there are secluded areas throughout the plant where he might isolate a person, the ruling finds there was “a substantial relationship” between the job and Palmer’s criminal record that justified denying him the job.

The ruling directs the circuit court to send the case back to LIRC, directing the commission to dismiss Palmer’s complaint.

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