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Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

June 20, 2017

THOMAS JEFFERSON UNIVERSITY HOSPITALS, INC., Appellant
v.
PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRY, BUREAU OF LABOR LAW COMPLIANCE, Appellee ELIZABETH HAUBRICH, Intervenor

          ARGUED: March 7, 2017.

         Appeal from the Order of Commonwealth Court entered on 01/06/2016 at No. 2275 CD 2014 affirming the Order entered on 11 /17/2014 of the Department of Labor, at No. 2014-02 and the 02/17/2016 Order Denying the Application for Reargument.

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

          OPINION

          WECHT JUSTICE.

         In this appeal, we consider whether a recently terminated employee is an "employee" and, thus, entitled to inspect her personnel file, according to the Inspection of Employment Records Law (hereinafter "the Personnel Files Act" or "the Act"), 43 P.S. §§ 1321-24. Because we conclude that the Act's definition of "employee" excludes former employees, we hold that a terminated employee is precluded from inspecting her file. We reverse the contrary holding of the Commonwealth Court.

         At the heart of this case is the Personnel Files Act's definition of "employee, " which is as follows:

Any person currently employed, laid off with reemployment rights or on leave of absence. The term 'employee' shall not include applicants for employment or any other person.

43 P.S. § 1321. The Act further provides:

An employer shall, at reasonable times, upon request of an employee, permit that employee or an agent designated by the employee to inspect his or her own personnel files used to determine his or her own qualifications for employment, promotion, additional compensation, termination or disciplinary action ....

43 P.S. § 1322.

         In Beitman v. Dep't of Labor & Indus., 675 A.2d 1300 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1996), the Commonwealth Court, sitting en banc, considered whether the Personnel Files Act allowed a former employee to access her file. In that case, an employee who had been terminated over two years earlier requested access to her personnel file pursuant to section 1322. The employer denied her request, citing the Act's definition of employee. The Department of Labor and Industry's Bureau of Labor Law Compliance ("Department") upheld that decision.

         The employee appealed to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that, because section 1322 permits inspection by an employee "to determine his or her own qualifications for . . . termination or disciplinary action, " 43 P.S. § 1322, the General Assembly must have intended for terminated employees to be covered by the Act. The employee further asserted that to interpret the Act any other way would render the phrase "termination or disciplinary action" mere surplusage.

         The Commonwealth Court majority ultimately agreed with the Department and held that the former employee was not permitted to access her file. However, the majority confined its holding to the specific facts of the case, explaining that it did "not interpret the phrase 'currently employed' in [s]ection [1321] so stringently as to prohibit an individual from obtaining his or her personnel file when such request is made contemporaneously with termination or within a reasonable time immediately following termination." Beitman, 675 A.2d at 1302 (emphasis added).

         Three judges dissented, opining that the Act did not clearly and unambiguously exclude former employees from the definition of employee. See Beitman, 675 A.2d at 1303 (Friedman, J., dissenting). The dissent reasoned that the exclusion of "any other person" under section 1321 more likely was intended to exclude individuals who had never been employees rather than those that had at one time been employed, especially considering the use of the word "termination" in section 1322. The dissent concluded that section 1321 was ambiguous when read along with section 1322, because section 1322 allows employees to view their personnel files to ascertain the reason for their termination. In the dissent's view, if "employee" excluded terminated employees, the language in section 1322 would be meaningless. The dissent rejected the majority's suggestion that employees could obtain their files contemporaneously with termination or immediately thereafter. Such a reading, the dissent opined, was at odds with what the majority stated was the plain and unambiguous language of the Act. The dissent suggested that the majority could not have it both ways. See Beitman, 675 A.2d at 1304 n.4 (Friedman, J., dissenting) ("Following the Majority's rationale, if section [1321] defines an "employee" to exclude former employees, then section [1322], which defines the rights of "employees" under the Act, cannot, by definition, afford any protection to former employees, no matter how recent their termination.").

         In the dissent's view, the point in time at which an employee's rights are most in jeopardy is at termination, and most terminations do not come with advance notice. The dissent found it unreasonable to conclude that the General Assembly would have intended to exclude terminated employees from the protections of the Act. Accordingly, the dissent would have held that the Act's definition of employee includes former employees who were terminated prior to requesting to view their files.

         Following Beitman, the Department developed a policy that allows former employees to access their files if they make the request within a reasonable time. The Department generally has defined a reasonable time as approximately thirty days after termination. See Appellant's Br. at 31 ("In at least thirty cases . . . since the Beitman decision ... the Department [has] held that 'currently employed' could encompass persons who requested their personnel files seventeen, nineteen, twenty-three, and twenty-four days after their employment ended[, ] but not persons who requested their files thirty-two, thirty-four, thirty-six, forty-two, or forty-five days after termination.") (emphasis in original).

         The Beitman decision, and the Department's application of that decision, form the ...


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