In a recent decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that employers are not obligated under the Personnel Files Act to allow former employees, even those recently separated, to inspect their personnel file. Haubrich v. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, 2017 WL 2651980 (Pa. June 2017). The case centered on the definition of “employee” under the Act which is “[a]ny person currently employed, laid off with reemployment rights or on leave of absence.” The term “employee” does not include applicants for employment or any other person. 43 P.S. § 1321.
The Personnel Files Act provides an “employee” with the right to inspect his/her personnel file for the purpose of determining qualifications for employment, promotion, compensation, termination and disciplinary action. 43 P.S. § 1322. On August 9, 2013, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital terminated Elizabeth Haubrich’s employment, where she had worked as a nurse-anesthetist. A week later, on August 16, 2013, she requested to view her personnel file, which the hospital denied because she was no longer an employee.
Haubrich filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industry seeking access to her personnel file. The Department relied on a 1996 Commonwealth Court case (Beitman v. Dep’t of Labor and Industry) which held that while the Act generally only applies to current employees, the Act should not be interpreted so stringently as to prohibit an individual from obtaining his or her file when the request is made contemporaneously with termination or within a reasonable time immediately following termination. Based upon the Beitman court's statement that former employees who request their files within a reasonable time following their termination are covered by the Act, the Department determined that Haubrich had requested her file within a reasonable time after her termination and thus was entitled to review her personnel file.
The hospital appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed the determination that although Haubrich had been terminated she nonetheless had a right to review her personnel file. The case was then accepted on appeal before the Supreme Court.
Upon review, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled the Commonwealth Court’s decision, finding that the Personnel Files Act did not entitle employees to inspect their personnel file after termination, even those employees who made the request within a reasonable time of termination.
At the heart of the Court’s analysis was the definition of the term “employee” under the Act. The Court stated that “reading the Personnel Files Act according to its plain terms, we conclude that former employees, who were not laid off with re-employment rights and who are not on a leave of absence, have no right to access their personnel files pursuant to the Act, regardless of how quickly following termination they request to do so.”
Under this decision, employers no longer need to evaluate how recently an employee was terminated from employment when receiving a request to review his or her personnel file, no matter how recent the termination. Employers must keep in mind, however, the importance of complete and proper documenting of all personnel action.
The Personnel Files Act is not the only avenue in which a terminated employee can access relevant documents. In addition to a subpoena or discovery request if litigation is initiated, unionized employees can request relevant documents through their bargaining unit, drawing on an employer’s obligation under the Pennsylvania Employee Relations Act to engage in good faith bargaining.