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FIRED DUE TO ERROR, STILL JOBLESS AFTER 3 MONTHS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eschol Amelia Studnitz lost her $58,000 accounting job July 31 because a government background check deemed her "unsuitable" for a low-level security clearance. She was stunned. She had no criminal record.

"I kept thinking, 'What could I have done?' " said the 59-year-old Carroll County resident, who goes by the name Amy.

Her shock was warranted: Her firing was based on a mistake. And within days, her employer, Corporate Mailing Services of Arbutus, heard from the Social Security Administration that she could, in fact, work on a new contract handling mail for the agency.

But three bewildering months after her dismissal, Studnitz has not been rehired or found other work in this tight job market. A single woman who's relying on her $405 weekly unemployment checks, she says she is behind on the mortgage for her Manchester home and has a shut-off notice from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"I'm in a jam, a real jam," she said, "and I didn't do this to myself." She wants to regain the job she landed in April 2008, but the company now says it won't rehire her due to supposed performance shortfalls. She would like to sue the government for thousands of dollars of lost income, but could face long odds.

CMS President Stephen Linsenmeyer declined to comment, saying, "We're still working through this process. It's unresolved."

The circumstances of her firing show the impact that database glitches can have in an age when background checks are becoming increasingly common, according to one privacy rights advocate.

"This is a horrible injustice to her," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. But Coney said she was not surprised the error involved the FBI's National Crime Information Center database.

"There have been several well-publicized incidents involving inaccuracies in the NCIC database," she said, some dating back 20 years. According to online Maryland court records, a nursing home won an $11,676 civil judgment against Studnitz in 2005, but she says that actually involved her late father's estate. She has no criminal record.

Still, Studnitz appears to have limited legal options, said Marley Weiss, a University of Maryland law professor. CMS has no obligation to rehire her. Nonunion, private-sector workers can be fired for "any reason or no reason," except for a prohibited basis such as race or age.

A lawsuit against the government would be difficult, she predicted, because public agencies may argue they have immunity from such claims. "Of course," Weiss said, "there is an extreme sense of unfairness to this."

The FBI maintains the nationwide NCIC system at a West Virginia facility where information flows in from state, local and federal police agencies.

FBI spokesman Stephen G. Fischer Jr. said he could not explain the error or say how often mistakes occur. A data quality review process helps with accuracy, he said, "but we do not maintain or track an error rate."

Social Security officials say it bears no blame for Studnitz's experience. "Obviously, it's a horrible situation for her, but we're kind of caught in the middle," said spokesman Mark Hinkle.

Hinkle said Social Security relies on NCIC data for its preliminary reviews. He also said while Social Security requires anyone working on an agency contract to have clearance, companies are not mandated to fire employees who flunk background checks.

For Studnitz, that initial NCIC check tipped the first of several dominoes in an ordeal that has left her feeling rattled.

"I've never been let go, for one thing," she said in an interview. "And to be let go with a callous attitude. I was a good employee. [CMS] just completely wrote me off like a bad seed. It was surreal."

The timing was terrible. Ten days earlier, she had used $5,000 in savings toward buying a car, and the $400 payments have deepened her money problems.

Studnitz learned of her firing from a human resources consultant the afternoon of July 31, a Friday. The consultant had no answers and gave her a letter from CMS' general manager, Michael J. DeMos. The letter noted that, since the firm had recently won a contract to handle mail for Social Security, all employees at CMS' facility needed a Level 1 security clearance.

"We have been informed by the SSA that your background investigation was returned as 'unsuitable,' " he wrote. He did not explain why she was unsuitable, just that she was being fired.

"Are you crazy?" Studnitz recalls telling the human resources official. She was given a few minutes to tidy up and leave.

Enclosed in her termination packet was the July 23 letter from Social Security that informed the company of her "unsuitable" status. Studnitz wonders why she was not told until more than a week later; she might have been able to clarify the error and save her job.

On Aug. 11, Social Security wrote a follow-up letter to CMS. It said "a favorable pre-screening for suitability" was done on Studnitz. It did not mention the earlier "unsuitable" finding. The revision meant she could work on the contract, after all, "pending a final suitability determination."

But by this point, Studnitz had been unemployed for nearly two weeks.

Distraught over her firing, she called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal agencies. A private lawyer pointed her to Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett. And on Aug. 11, with no way of knowing about Social Security's U-turn on her suitability, she authorized Bartlett, a Republican from Frederick, to look into her case.

On Sept. 3, DeMos of CMS sent Studnitz a new letter. This one said Social Security had updated her status to "approved" and said she could reapply to be a senior accountant. Studnitz said she didn't get that letter until Sept. 14 and reapplied, even though she felt entitled to a reinstatement.

But then on Sept. 22, DeMos wrote back with bad news. CMS had begun "reorganizing" the accounting department, he said, and the company now expected to respond to her application by Oct. 16.

Now CMS says she is not welcome back. In a letter postmarked Oct. 21, Linsenmeyer, the company president, wrote that she would not be rehired because an internal review uncovered issues "detrimental to your successful performance." Those included her failure to process some invoices or to bill customers at new, higher rates. She disputes the allegations.

The congressman, meanwhile, has been working on her behalf. In late September he forwarded her a letter from the agency explaining that, after the NCIC flag popped up, a subsequent review found what she knew all along - that "Ms. Studnitz did not have a criminal record."

It was the first time, Studnitz said, that she realized the source of her cascading woes was a faulty NCIC check.

Studnitz says she wants to sue the government and is considering a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Bartlett is "coordinating" with the EEOC, said his spokeswoman Lisa Wright, offering no details.

Bartlett is also considering legislation "to address future similar situations where inaccurate government criminal background checks are the cause of action for loss of jobs for government work," Wright said.

All Studnitz knows for sure is that she needs an income. She's applied for scores of jobs but gotten no offers. "I bet you I could wallpaper my whole house with resumes," she said, "just like everybody else."

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