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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds that Former Employees are Not Entitled to Inspect their Personnel Files

July 21, 2017

It is an issue that human resources professionals frequently face. An employee is discharged. The employee, or the employee's attorney, demands the opportunity to inspect the employee's personnel file to determine whether the file contains documentation supporting the reason for the employee's discharge. Do you, as a human resources professional, have a legal obligation to allow the former employee, or his or her representative, to review the employee's personnel file?

Based on a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the answer, in Pennsylvania, is now "No." Pennsylvania maintains a statute known as the Inspection of Employment Records Law, 43 P.S. § 1321 et seq. ("Personnel Files Act"). That statute requires Pennsylvania employers, at reasonable times upon request of the employee, to permit the employee or an agent of the employee to inspect the employee's personnel file. Lower courts in Pennsylvania have liberally interpreted the statute's reference to "employee," and have held that even former employees are entitled to inspect their personnel file if the employee requests that inspection within a reasonable period of time after the employee's termination. See, e.g., Beitman v. Department of Labor and Industry, 675 A.2d 1300 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1996).

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, however, has recently rejected that lower court precedent. In Thomas Jefferson Univ. Hosps., Inc. v. Pennsylvania Dep't. of Labor & Indus., No. 30 EAP 2017 (Pa. June 20, 2017), the Supreme Court held that former employees, who were not laid off with reemployment rights and who are not on a leave of absence, have no right to inspect their personnel file.

In the Thomas Jefferson case, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital terminated the employment of Elizabeth Haubrich, one of the Hospital's nurse-anesthetists. One week after Haubrich's termination, she submitted a written request to the Hospital to inspect her personnel file, invoking the Personnel Files Act. The Hospital denied Haubrich's request, taking the position that she was not covered by the Personnel Files Act because she was no longer an employee of the Hospital.

Haubrich then filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry ("Department") seeking access to her personnel records. The Department, relying on the Beitman decision and on Departmental policy, granted Haubrich's request. The Department maintained a general policy that an employer must allow a former employee to inspect his or her personnel file if the employee requests that inspection within approximately 30 days after the employee's employment separation. The Department ruled that Haubrich was entitled to inspect the personnel file that the Hospital maintained on her because Haubrich had requested that inspection one week after her employment termination. The Hospital appealed the Department's decision, unsuccessfully, to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

Before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the issue was whether the Personnel Files Act's definition of "employee" includes former employees, as the Commonwealth Court and Department had previously concluded. Applying principles of statutory interpretation, the Supreme Court agreed with the Hospital's argument that the Personnel Files Act unambiguously defines the word "employee" to only include individuals who are "currently employed, laid off with reemployment rights or on leave of absence," and that the phrase "currently employed" does not include former employees. In reaching its conclusion, the Supreme Court relied on the commonly-understood meaning of "current," that is, "right now" or "at present time," and found that "currently employed" cannot mean both presently and formerly employed. 

In light of Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's decision in Thomas Jefferson Univ. Hosps., Inc. v. Pennsylvania Dep't. of Labor & Indus., Pennsylvania employers are no longer required to provide former employees with access to their personnel files pursuant to the Pennsylvania Personnel Files Act.

If you have any questions about employer obligations under the Pennsylvania Personnel Files Act, please contact Kurt A. Miller, Andrew J. Ruxton, or another member of Clark Hill's Labor and Employment Practice Group.

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