Nelson v. NASA

On Friday, January 11, the Ninth Circuit ordered the District Court to grant preliminary injunctive relief to a group of “low risk” administrative and laboratory employees who were subjected to what they considered to be an unconstitutional requirement of invasive background checks.

The employees worked for the the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a combined effort between NASA and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The “low risk” personnel had previously worked for Caltech, some of them for a number of years before the contract with NASA, and had never required such background checks before.

From the Judicial Order:

Appellants contest NASA’s newly instated procedures requiring “low risk” JPL personnel to yield to broad background investigations as a condition of retaining access to JPL’s facilities. NASA’s new policy requires that every JPL employee undergo a National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI), the same background investigation required of government civil service employees, before he or she can obtain an identification badge needed for access to JPL’s facilities. The NACI investigation requires the applicant to complete and submit Standard Form 85 (SF 85), which asks for (1) background information, including residential,educational, employment, and military histories, (2) the names of three references that “know you well,” and (3) disclosure of any illegal drug use within the past year, along with any treatment or counseling received for such use.

This information is then checked against four government databases: (1) Security/Suitability Investigations Index; (2) the Defense Clearance and Investigation Index; (3) the FBI Name Check; and (4) the FBI National Criminal History Fingerprint Check. Finally, SF 85 requires the applicant to sign an “Authorization for Release of Information” that authorizes the government to collect “any information relating to [his or her] activities from schools, residential management agents, employers, criminal justice agencies, retail business establishments, or other sources of information.” The information sought “may include, but is not limited to, [the applicant’s] academic, residential, achievement, performance, attendance, disciplinary, employment history, and criminal history record information.” The record is vague as to the exact extent to and manner in which the government will seek this information, but it is undisputed that each of the applicants’ references, employers, and landlords will be sent an Request for Personal Information” (Form 42), which asks whether the recipient has “any reason to question [the applicant’s] honesty or trustworthiness” or has “any adverse information about [the applicant’s] employment, residence, or activities” concerning “violations of law,” “financial integrity,” “abuse of alcohol and/or drugs,” “mental or emotional stability,” “general behavior or conduct,” or “other matters.” The recipient is asked to explain any adverse information noted on the form. Once the information has been collected, NASA and the federal Office of Personnel Management determine whether the employee is “suitable” for continued access to NASA’s facilities, though the exact mechanics of this suitability determination are in dispute.

A footnote adds:

Appellants claim that the factors used in the suitability determination were set forth in a document, temporarily posted on JPL’s internal website, labeled the “Issue Characterization Chart.” The document identifies within categories designated “A” through “D” “[i]nfrequent, irregular, but deliberate delinquency in meeting financial obligations,” “[p]attern of irresponsibility as reflected in . . . credit history,” “carnal knowledge,” “sodomy,” “incest,” “abusive language,” “unlawful assembly,” “attitude,” “homosexuality . . . when indications are present of possible susceptibility to coercion or blackmail,” “physical health issues,” “mental, emotional, psychological, or psychiatric issues,” “issues . . . that relate to an associate of the person under investigation,” and “issues . . . that relate to a relative of the person under investigation.” NASA neither concedes nor denies that these factors are considered as part of its suitability analysis; instead, it suggests that Appellants have not sufficiently proved that such factors will play a role in any individual case.

It sounds really messy, especially since Caltech told the appellants that they would be terminated should they not comply or fail the background check. This then created a environment in which they “must choose between their jobs or their constitutional rights”.

As stated, the Ninth Circuit ordered that the background checks should be suspended for the time being and “preliminary injunctive relief should apply…” In other words, the employees can continue working without background checks until the matter is resolved.

I feel like I am not doing this case a great deal of justice in my explanation, however, I do see the potential for this case to have a profound effect upon both California and the Federal government in their respective abilities to conduct questionable, if not unconstitutional background checks.

More information can be found here. The site is a bit pointed, but very thorough.

UPDATE: Jason Schultz, aka Lawgeek, aka my favorite law school prof, also writes about the situation.

5 Replies to “Nelson v. NASA”

  1. Wow, why are people so offended by a background check. Isn’t NASA in thier right to weed out people they feel are a threat to the company, or at least keep an eye on a one?

  2. This process is no different than the military has used for years to determine clearance level. The only problem I see is the abrupt nature of the transition, if it was in deed abrupt.

    Why would this be considered unconstitutional for one class of citizens (civilian) with access to sensitive areas and information and not another class of citizens (military)?

    Some of the same suitability factors, if implemented earlier, would have prevented civilian moles in the highest reaches of the FBI.

  3. “Why would this be considered unconstitutional for one class of citizens (civilian) with access to sensitive areas and information and not another class of citizens (military)?”

    All of the plaintiffs (as well as more than 97% of employees at JPL) are in non-sensitive positions. The lawsuit does not cover people in sensitive positions.

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