Supreme Court Decision Defining Employee Under Personnel Files Act

A recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may clarify a question often asked by public-sector employers, specifically, whether or not a terminated employee is permitted to access and view their personnel file.  The Supreme Court recently ruled in the case of Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Labor Law Compliance, that the definition of “employee” in the Inspection of Employment Records Law (commonly known, and referenced hereinafter, as the “Personnel Files Act”) should only apply to individuals currently employed by their employer, individuals who were laid off from employment with recall rights and employees on a leave of absence.  Specifically, 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 access their personnel files pursuant to the Personnel Files Act.”

The recent ruling clears up confusion created by a 1996 Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision in the case of Beitman v. Department of Labor & Industry, which stated, in dicta, that its ruling “did not interpret the phrase ‘currently employed’ in Section 1321 of [the Personnel Files Act] so stringently as to prohibit an individual from obtaining his or her personnel file when such a request is made contemporaneously with termination or within a reasonable time immediately following termination.”  The ruling prevented the employee, Beitman, from accessing her personnel file since she had been terminated from her employment two years prior to making the request.  However, the ruling seemed to carve out an exception to allow former employees to access their personnel files within a short period of time following their termination from employment.  Pursuant to the Commonwealth Court’s holding in Beitman, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s Bureau of Labor Law Compliance developed a policy to allow former employees to access their personnel files if they made a request to do so within a “reasonable period of time” following their termination.  The Department generally defined the “reasonable time period” as approximately thirty (30) days following the employee’s termination.

The Supreme Court’s holding in Thomas Jefferson eliminates the uncertainty created by the Beitman ruling and establishes a bright-line rule permitting employers to restrict access to former employee’s personnel files.  As long as the employee has been terminated, has no recall rights and is not on a leave of absence, the employer may deny the employee’s request to view their personnel file.  Please contact Maiello Brungo & Maiello’s Education Law Team for further assistance with any personnel or records request issues.

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