State Supreme Court rules fired worker not entitled to see personnel file

By David Hutton | Jul 3, 2017

HARRISBURG — In a case that ultimately could have far-reaching impact across the state, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that terminated employees are precluded from inspecting their personnel files.

Citing the Inspection of Employment Records Law, the staate Supreme Court concluded that the act’s definition of “employee” excludes former employees. As a result, it maintains that a terminated employee is precluded from inspecting his or her file.

The court reversed a ruling by the Commonwealth Court after Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals appealed its case against the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Labor Law and Compliance.

Following Beitman v. Department of Labor and Industry, the department developed a policy that allows former employees to access their files if a request is made “within a reasonable time.”

The department usually has defined a “reasonable time” as about 30 days after termination of employment.

Elizabeth Haubrich had worked for Thomas Jefferson University Hospital as a nurse-anesthetist. According to the opinion, the hospital fired Haubrich on Aug. 9, 2013.

A week later, on Aug. 16, 2013, Haubrich filed a request with the hospital to view her personnel file pursuant to the Personnel Files Act. Believing that Haubrich was not entitled to view her files because she was no longer an employee, the hospital denied her request.

On Jan. 20, 2014, Haubrich filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industry, seeking access to her records under the Inspection of Employment Records Law.

The parties agreed to forgo an evidentiary hearing and filed a joint stipulation of facts.

Haubrich conceded that she was not employed by the hospital at the time that she made the request. She also stipulated that she did not have re-employment rights and was not on a leave of absence.

The parties submitted briefs and the department held oral arguments on the sole issue of whether Haubrich was an "employee" under the act.

Relying 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. 

On Nov. 17, 2014, the department granted Haubrich's request to inspect her personnel file.

The hospital appealed the department's decision to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that the plain language of the act clearly excludes former employees from the definition of employee.

In its appeal to the Commweath Court, the hospital had maintained that the act uses the term “currently employed” and excludes “any other person.”

The hospital further argued before the Commonwealth Court that the legislative history of the act indicates that the Pennsylvania General Assembly did not intend to allow former employees to access their personnel files.

The hospital also pointed out in its appeal that there have been several failed attempts in the General Assembly to amend the act to include terminated employees.

Moreover, the hospital argued that the qualifying language from Beitman v. Department of Labor and Industry was mere dicta, and therefore was not controlling.

The Commonwealth Court defined “current” to mean “presently elapsing,” “occurring in or existing at the present time” or “most recent.”

The lower court wasn’t swayed by the hospital’s legislative history argument, pointing out that the only legislative history that is relevant to determine the meaning of a statute is the “contemporaneous legislative history.”

Finally, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the qualifying language in Beitman was more than dicta. 

Writing the unanimous opinon, Justice David Wecht noted that after reading the Personnel Files Act according to its plain terms, the court concluded 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.

“Thus, we hold that Haubrich is not permitted to access her file,” Wecht said in the high court's decision. “The order of the Commonwealth Court is reversed, and, to the extent that Beitman is inconsistent with today's decision, it is disapproved.”

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