On June 20, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously reversed a decision of the Commonwealth Court that had been challenged by Elliott Greenleaf’s Frederick P. Santarelli, Aimee L. Kumer and Sherine N. Bediako, regarding the obligations of employers to provide copies of their “personnel files” to former employees. In an issue of first impression, the Court interpreted the term “employee” under the Inspection of Employment Records Law (referred to as the “Personnel Files Act”), to exclude individuals whose employment had been recently terminated.
At issue was the definition of “employee,” which included those who are “currently employed;” a 1996 en banc Commonwealth Court opinion, Beitman v. Dept of Labor & Industry, had suggested in dicta that “currently employed” would encompass those who had been “recently terminated.” Following the issuance of the Beitman opinion, the Department of Labor and Industry (“DOLI”), which is charged with enforcement of the statute, had advised employers and former employees that former employees had a right to access personnel files for up to one month after their employment ended, and had entered dozens of administrative orders to that effect. In an opinion authored by Justice Wecht, the seven justices rejected the Beitman dicta and the DOLI’s interpretation of that case, and held that the phrase “currently employed” does not include former employees, even those whose employment relationship has recently ended.
The Supreme Court’s opinion lifts the cloud of ambiguity and confusion that had been formed by the DOLI’s application of the Beitman decision. Prior to this opinion, unsuspecting employers, following the plain language of the Act, had been subject to enforcement orders from the DOLI after refusing to allow recently-separated individuals to access the employer’s personnel records. Going forward, however, no confusion remains: current employees are permitted to access their employer’s personnel records pursuant to the Act; former employees are not. Moreover, the opinion provides practical benefits to employers and their current employees. Employers do not need to be concerned that the Act imposes an indefinite obligation to maintain records regarding former employees. Further, they do not need to be concerned that former employees can use the Act as a means of forcing access to their former worksite. And, particularly where files contain information provided by other employees (such as, for example, where an individual is terminated for harassing other employees), employers do not need to be concerned that a post-employment inspection of the personnel records by a former employee could lead to harassment or other misuse of the information.