Background Checks: Everywhere and Nowhere

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Background Checks: Everywhere and Nowhere


By: Christopher Marlowe, The Haggard Law Firm

The background check. Examinations of our past seem so common in every corner of our lives, that on that rare occasion where we are not asked to verify our personal information or consent to an examination of it, the transaction seems either charmingly quaint or mildly suspicious.  Our criminal history, finances, family relations, utilities, medical history, schooling or employment, to name a few, are routinely brought forth and scrutinized (or verified) as a necessary part of routine personal and business operations.


The ubiquity of the background check has fomented a public expectation that virtually every person we encounter has been screened for one thing or another.  Certainly, the priest or teacher is screened for child or sexual related offenses. The Uber driver has been thoroughly vetted for traffic offenses.  The apartment manager’s personal finances are in order, such that the proper handling of rents is not in jeopardy.

These expectations, however reasonable, are not subject to uniform regulation and even more rarely are they mandated by law.  The inconsistent handling of sex offender regulations helps highlight our misperception of the efficacy and regularity of background checks.  Society considers itself tough on sex offenders, and lawmakers fashion themselves as protectors of the children and those most vulnerable.  Florida Statute 948.30 is a good example.  If a sex crime victim was under the age of 18, the offender cannot work for pay “or as a volunteer at any place where children regularly congregate, including, but not limited to, schools, child care facilities, parks, playgrounds, pet stores, libraries, zoos, theme parks, and malls.”

This sounds pretty onerous for the offender and gives parents and neighbors comfort that a menace isn’t able to plot against their children from the workplace.  Sex offenders also cannot live within 1000 feet of playgrounds, among other places.  But did you know that there is no law against a Sex Offender having the keys to your apartment if he is the manager?  And that there is no requirement by an apartment owner to do a background check on his/her manager?


Background checks are everywhere and nowhere.  They can be a valuable tool to guard against foreseeable problems, and when systematically deployed, increase intelligence to the hiring and retention process.  Juries expect them, and woes befall the corporate representative whose company is on the hook for a negligent or intentional act consistent with an employee’s predilections.  As a consumer, however, caveat emptor.  In the residential apartment setting, in particular, this is one area of inquiry that is not meeting consumer expectations.


The case of David Nelson is a tragic example. The United States Marine served our country on multiple overseas deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime. While risking his life on the front lines, he developed elite skills in satellite and telecommunications technology, which he then put to use as a private contractor upon his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. He and his wife Marla Nelson moved from Bellingham, Washington to Plantation, Florida to further David’s rapid career growth in the telecommunications. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson’s lives, both personally and professionally, had just begun.


Just after 5pm on a July afternoon at 31 years of age, David Nelson was shot in the back of the head at an apartment parking lot in Plantation while carrying mail to his apartment. Marla Nelson, 26, instantly became a widow, and the killer hung himself in jail.


Greystar Management, which managed the complex where Nelson was killed,  holds itself out as the preeminent residential rental housing agent. With more than 385,000 residences under management at the time, Greystar wrote that its company “is staffed by the very best real estate professionals who are specially trained to think like an owner and who take pride in resident satisfaction.”  Greystar’s massive size and devotion to profits above people necessitated its robotic approach to residential housing, rather than the integrated, attuned manager it purported to be. It was clear from the tenant files and depositions in that case that Greystar simply has too much business, and too many customers, to adequately screen the people who live in their communities.


The killer and his son, the listed tenant, was neither a stranger to Greystar, or to its background checking vendor to which all tenant screenings were delegated. The tenant admitted in a deposition to lying on his residency application about where he lived previously. He was a previous Greystar resident at another nearby property before moving with his mother and father to the same place where David and Marla Nelson lived. Both properties managed by Greystar used the same company to screen the son’s application at both places in the span of nine months.


Greystar didn’t read the son’s application, or at least not carefully enough.  The corporate employees admitted that the false information provided would have resulted in a denial of the tenant application.  If they had in fact checked with management at the killer’s previous resident, they would have seen that Jaime Vogel was accused of arson, making death threats, and generally making mayhem at the earlier property.

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