Ryan Brandt thought his criminal history was behind him. A judge in 2005 allowed him to expunge his record for a 1995 battery conviction.
But when he recently applied to work as a manager of an Arby's restaurant in Mariniette, Wis., he claims in a federal lawsuit, he was denied the job because his expunged record came up on a criminal background check.
Brandt eventually settled for lower paying job. "I was trying to get a better job and move up. I thought it was all behind me," he said of his conviction. "That basically cost me a job."
At least 40 states give people like Brandt the right to effectively erase their criminal past by sealing or expunging some, usually minor, prior criminal convictions.
But massive private electronic databases of criminal records, which are not always up to date, make some of those supposedly secret records widely available to employers and landlords.
Public court records, once protected by what the Supreme Court called the "practical obscurity" of the nation's decentralized justice system, are now digitized and sold to private companies. Some of those companies compile them into databases of millions of public records.
According to government reports and consumer lawsuits, those databases often contain inaccuracies, reporting criminal convictions for people who have never been arrested and records that should have been expunged.
Criminal justice experts say it is common for people to lose jobs because of those inaccuracies. "We're building a system that creates a scarlet letter that can never be removed," said Robert Sykora of the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, which oversees the state's public defenders.
There are no comprehensive statistics on how often the reports turn up inaccurate information. But a review of court records by ABC News found dozens of lawsuits, on behalf of hundreds of people, filed in the last two years against the major criminal records database companies, alleging that background checks contain inaccurate information about criminal convictions.
"This is obviously an issue that's becoming more and more significant as it becomes easier to get and exchange data," said Chichi Wu, a senior attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.
In a statement, LexisNexis, the company that conducted Brandt's background check, said that the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the federal law that governs consumer reporting agencies, sets out a "detailed framework" for giving consumers access to their background checks and allowing them to correct inaccuracies.
"LexisNexis follows the framework and requirements set forth by the FCRA," the company said.
Arthur Cohen, the former chairman of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, said mistakes are uncommon. "If mistakes are made, they need to be corrected," he said. "I don't think this is a rampant problem."
LexisNexis fixed Bradnt's report after he complained, he said. The company also fixed a background check for Daniel Johnson, a retired police officer in Slidell, La., after it allegedly turned up a conviction for a different Daniel Johnson.
But, Johnson said, the correction came only after he had lost a job as a security guard at a grocery store, which he was using to make extra money after his house flooded during Hurricane Katrina.
"It was very embarrassing. I had a clean career with the police department for 25 years," he said. "I never even had as much as a speeding ticket."