Personnel Files in Colorado: Who owns the file and what privacy interests are involved?
This is a question that I repeatedly see throughout the year and it comes in a variety of contexts. Often times, employers who may have recently terminated an employee, are suddenly posed with a request from that former employee for his/her personnel file. Sometimes, within a workers’ compensation or other employment related claim, the worker is seeking copies of the personnel file in an effort to bolster his or her claims. Additionally, employers receive requests from plaintiffs or third-parties seeking copies of personnel files concerning witnesses or company representatives. Consequently, employers are often placed in a decision whether or not to disclose this information and if there are any privacy issues with disclosing the information.
While the Colorado Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have not definitively addressed this issue head on, there is support for the conclusion that personnel files are property belonging to the employers and not the employees. In Corbetta v. Albertson’s Inc., it was the first time the Colorado Supreme Court addressed the issues of personnel files and privacy interests. The case involved a suit by a customer of Albertson’s alleging a variety of claims arising out of the plaintiff cracking several teeth on a pebble in a spinach salad she purchased. As part of discovery, plaintiff requested the entire employment files of the store manager, all assistant managers and all deli employees. Albertsons objected to the disclosure of these files invoking a right to privacy argument of the employees. The trial court ordered production of the files and concluded that while the personnel files were the property of Albertsons, disclosure was appropriate under the circumstances.
The Supreme Court overturned the trial court’s decision noting primarily that it did not appropriately balance the privacy interests involved and make appropriate factual findings and conclusions in addressing those privacy interests. However, the Supreme Court, in this decision, did not overturn the conclusion of the trial court that the personnel files were the property of the company. Accordingly, employers can rely on this decision for the conclusion that personal files are company property and not the property of the specific employee. Furthermore, while the Supreme Court did provide a right to privacy balancing test for determination of whether a personal file can be disclosed, the Court later in In re District Court, Cty and County of Denver revised this test, which now is the current law.
The case of In re District Court, Cty and County of Denver involved a former client of a law firm suing for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duties. As part of discovery, the former client requested financial information of the law firm members. The Supreme Court determined that when discovery requests implicate right to privacy interests:
- The requesting party must first prove that the information requested is relevant to the subject of the action;
- If shown relevant, then the party opposing the request must show that it has a reasonable expectation that the requested information or materials is confidential and will not be disclosed;
- If the trial court finds that there is a legitimate expectation of privacy in the materials, the burden then shifts back to the requesting party to prove either that disclosure serves a compelling state interest or that there is a compelling need for the information AND that the information is not available from other sources.
There are other issues that implicate personnel files. First, employers are not required to give employees access to their personnel records. Access to personnel files and the information they contain should be restricted. Only authorized employees, supervisors or managers should be permitted to access personnel records on a “need to know” basis. Second, records regarding confidential, sensitive information unrelated to job performance, such as regarding citizenship, garnishments and any medical condition that could cause someone else to conclude the employee has a communicable disease (e.g., HIV), should be maintained in separate, confidential files. For example, if an employee suffers a workers’ compensation claim, it is highly recommended that a separate file be created to avoid confidential and private information being contained within his or her personnel file, such as medical reports.
Personnel files are the property of the employers and thus, it is recommended that outside the scope of litigation, any such request for disclosure be denied. When requests are made as part of litigation or insurance claims, it is imperative that the right to privacy issue be properly considered and that the litigants requesting the information properly meet their burdens before a trial court.