PENNSYLVANIA–Denying access to payroll records that contain a public employee’s social security number is not a violation of the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, a 4-3 majority of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania held in mid-July.
The court unanimously held that individuals have a right of privacy in their social security numbers, and found that dissemination of social security numbers is restricted by federal law. A majority of the court, with three judges dissenting, then ruled that any record containing the social security number of a municipal employee is exempt from disclosure. The court considered a further request for home phone numbers and home addresses on payroll records moot.
The Allegheny County Tribune-Review had argued that the payroll records are a “public record” in which a public employee has no right to privacy. The paper argued that even if a right to privacy does exist, the countervailing benefits afforded by releasing the information far outweigh a public employee’s right to privacy.
But the county contended that the payroll records are an embodiment of an employee’s confidential information which may not be disclosed without trampling on the employee’s right to privacy and threatening an employee’s personal security.
The case began when Tribune reporter Eric Heyl requested access to the payroll records of the Allegheny County Housing Authority (ACHA) in July 1993. ACHA denied the Tribune access but released a list of all ACHA employees and corresponding salary and employment information. The Tribune sued, and the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh held that access to the payroll records should be granted. ACHA appealed.
In its mid-July ruling, the appeals court held that the federal Privacy Act of 1974 limits the availability of social security numbers and creates an expectation of privacy in the minds of employees in terms of the use and disclosure of their numbers. The court determined that the individual employee’s privacy interest outweighs the benefits of releasing the information.
The dissenters argued that ACHA could give the newspaper copies of the original documents with social security numbers redacted. The dissenters said they were concerned the decision would be used to shield otherwise public documents. (Tribune-Review Publishing Co. v. Allegheny County Housing Authority; Media Counsel: Susan A. Yohe)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.