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Former Employees Do Not Have Right to Inspect Personnel Files, Pennsylvania High Court Clarifies

  • July 24, 2017

Terminated employees, even those recently separated, are not entitled to inspect their personnel file under the Pennsylvania Inspection of Employment Records Law (the “Act”), according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, No. 30 EAP 2016 (June 20, 2017). This decision, authored by Justice David Wecht, puts an end to an employer’s previous conundrum of determining what constitutes “recently” separated when evaluating a former employee’s request to review his or her personnel file.

At the heart of the Court’s analysis was the definition of the term “employee” under the Act. Until this decision, the definition of employee had been interpreted to include “recently” terminated employees. What was not clear, however, was how recent the termination had to be to constitute “recently” terminated. Relying on basic principles of statutory interpretation, the Court determined that interpreting “employee” to include recently terminated employees was too broad.

Under the Act, an employee is defined as “[a]ny person currently employed, laid off with reemployment rights or on leave of absence.” Excluded from the definition are “applicants for employment or any other person.” Turning to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Court examined the plain meaning of the term “currently,” which is defined as “now, at the present moment.” It determined that including those “recently terminated” was at odds with the dictionary definition of “currently.” The Court concluded, “[t]he term ‘currently employed’ cannot mean both presently employed and formerly employed.”

Nothing within the language of the Act expanded the right of inspection to former employees, the Court concluded. Reading the Act according to its plain meaning, the Court held 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.”

As a practical matter, this finally clarifies an employer’s obligations under the Act. Employers no longer need to evaluate how recently an employee was terminated from employment when receiving a request from a former employee to review his or her personnel file, no matter how recent the termination.

Please contact a Jackson Lewis attorney with any questions about this decision or other workplace developments.

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