by Jacob M. Sitman and Theresa M. DeAngelis, Summer Associate
The question of whether a recently terminated employee in Pennsylvania has a statutory right to inspect his or her personnel file has been answered.
The Pennsylvania Personnel Files Act (the “Act”) grants employees the statutory right to “at reasonable times” inspect their personnel files used to determine their “qualifications for employment, promotion, additional compensation, termination, or disciplinary action.” 43 P.S. §1322. The Act explains that any person “currently employed, laid off with reemployment rights or on leave of absence,” qualifies as an employee who has a right to inspect his or her personnel files under the Act.
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court suggested in its 1996 decision Beitman v. Department of Labor and Industry, 675 A.2d 1300 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1996), that the phrase “currently employed” allows an individual to inspect his or her personnel files when the request to inspect was made “contemporaneously with termination or within a reasonable time immediately following termination.” This resulted in ambiguity regarding how long employees could wait to request their personnel file following termination and still retain the statutory right to inspect it.
A recent dispute over a terminated employee’s right to inspect her personnel files prompted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn Beitman’s interpretation of “currently employed,” and hold that recently terminated employees have no right to inspect their personnel files.
On August 9, 2013, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (TJU) terminated Elizabeth Haubrich, who worked for TJU as a nurse-anesthetist. One week later, Haubrich filed a request to view her personnel file under the Act. TJU denied Haubrich’s request. The ensuing dispute prompted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to weigh in.
Initially, Haubrich filed a complaint with The Department of Labor and Industry (the Department). The Department found that Haubrich requested her file within a reasonable period of time post-termination, and was therefore entitled to inspect her files under the Act, relying on Beitman. TJU appealed the Department’s order, and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the order, finding that the request was reasonable and interpreting “currently employed” to include recently terminated individuals.
On June 20, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that Haubrich, as a recently terminated employee, did not have a statutory right to access her personnel files under the Act. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the language of the Act unambiguous and that the plain terms of the Act do not give recently terminated employees the right to access their personnel files “regardless of how quickly following termination they request to do so.” Thomas Jefferson Univ. Hosps., Inc. v. PA Dep’t of Labor & Indus., No. 30 EAP 2016, 2017 LEXIS 1381, at *23 (Pa. 2017). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that there are situations where employees receive advance notice of termination that is effective at a later date and suggested that in those instances, employees may access their files before the effective date. Id. at *21.
The impact of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision is significant. Ultimately, the decision resolves ambiguity for both employers and employees related to when an employee has a right under the Act to request his or her personnel file. In this way, the decision alleviates the burden of employers in responding to employees’ requests to inspect their personnel files. Because the decision suggests that a currently employed individual who receives notice of termination with a future effective date can inspect his or her personnel files before the effective date, employers should consider confirming the effective dates of employee terminations in writing so that both employer and employee are clear about, among other things, when each employee has a right to access files under the Act.