Legal Hotline: Unemployment Compensation Hearings

  • Jan 31, 2019

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  I’m interested in an unemployment compensation issue involving a city and a former employee. The RTKL makes unemployment compensation records non-public, but aren’t unemployment compensation hearings required to be open to the public?  If they are public and I attend, can I report about what happens during the hearing?

A:  Yes, and yes.

Unemployment compensation hearings before the Department of Labor and Industry, or an unemployment compensation referee, are public pursuant to 34 Pa. Code § 101.21.  This provision of the law states:

§ 101.21. Conduct of hearings.
 (c)  Hearings under this part shall be open to the public, subject to the availability of suitable and reasonable facilities. However, the tribunal conducting a hearing may close the hearing as to other than interested parties to the extent necessary to protect the interests and rights of the claimant or employer to a fair hearing.

As with most hearings, the trier of fact (judge) retains the right to close a hearing under appropriate circumstances, but those situations should be rare, as the general rule requires public access. Scheduling information and docket entries for public hearings should be provided by the Department of Labor and Industry.  

The conduct and contents of a public hearing can be the subject of news coverage.  Pennsylvania recognizes the Fair Report Privilege, which permits the press to publish accounts of official proceedings or reports, even when they contain defamatory statements, so long as the accounts present a fair and accurate summary of the proceedings. Reporters can publish accounts of court documents (such as complaints) and search warrants used in public investigations as well as official proceedings like hearings and public meetings. The privilege will be upheld if the published account produces the same effect on the mind of the reader that the precise truth would have produced. If the published account is a fair and accurate rendition of the document used to base the story upon and does not carry a greater "sting" than the document itself, the privilege protects the newspaper from liability for libel. Careful pre-publication review should take place in any story where the privilege could be invoked, and PNA urges journalists to seek the advice of counsel in these situations.  

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact your corporate attorney of the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.

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