The 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a health clinic’s statements to a physician and to immigrations officials regarding the physician’s “at least three year” employment commitment did not create an employment contract that would override the doctor’s employment at will status. Edwards v. Geisinger Clinic, 3d Cir., No. 11-1528, Jan. 23, 2012.

Phillips Edwards is a licensed physician from the United Kingdom with a specialty in interventional radiology. While working in Kentucky under a temporary visa, Edwards was recruited to work at Geisinger Clinic’s interventional radiology department in Danville, Pennsylvania. During the recruitment process, Edwards was informed that Geisinger requires its physicians to obtain board certification from the American Board of Radiology (ABR), which requires 4 years of uninterrupted employment in an approved residency program.

Edwards was asked whether he understood that he would have to be at Geisinger for at least 4 years and would have to be board certified within 6 years, or “Geisinger would have to review [his] situation.” Edwards indicated his understanding, and was provided an offer letter dated July 11, 2006 that included the fact that Edwards “will be granted 4-6 years from the date of employment to become board certified” and that if he didn’t, “continued employment . . . will need to be reevaluated.” This offer letter was sent to the ABR by Geisinger to ensure that Edwards would be able to sit for the boards. At some subsequent point, Edwards also signed a “Practice Agreement” in which he acknowledged that his employment with Geisinger “may be terminated at any time by either party for any or no reason.”

After signing the offer letter, Edwards returned briefly to the U.K. at the expiration of his temporary visa. At that point, Edwards and Geisinger communicated with U.S. immigration authorities to obtain an H-1B visa, which would allow Edwards to return to the U.S. and work for Geisinger. In order to obtain that visa, Edwards and Geisinger had to represent that Edwards “had at least a three year employment commitment” in the U.S. Based on representations made, Edwards received the visa, and began working for Geisinger in 2007.

In May 2008, Geisinger terminated Edwards’ employment. Edwards brought a lawsuit against the clinic for breach of contract. In September 2010, the lower court granted summary judgment in favor of Geisinger, finding that Edwards’ employment was at-will. Edwards appealed that decision, arguing that he and Geisinger had entered into an express employment contract for a definite term. The Third Circuit disagreed, and upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the case.

Like laws in many other states, Pennsylvania law presumes that employment is at-will. To overcome that presumption, an individual must show “clear and precise evidence” of the parties’ intention to form an employment contract for a definite length of time. Evidence that an employer “hopes” that an individual will remain in its employ is inadequate to prove that an employment contract was formed. In this case, the Court held that the language concerning employment for four to six years was “too vague to establish an express contract for a definite term.” Further, the Court pointed to language in the employment offer that implied that Edwards would lose his employment if he failed to become board certified within the allotted time, and held that such language clarified the board certification requirements, rather than promised continued employment for that length of time.

Importantly, the Court also held that the absence of an at-will disclaimer in the offer letter does not indicate that the parties contracted for a definite term. Further, the Court found that language that an employer will discharge only for “just cause” does not establish an express or implied contract that could only be terminated for that just cause. In addition, the Court pointed out that an H-1B visa does not guarantee employment for the maximum duration of the visa. In fact, the Immigration and Nationality Act specifically includes language to indicate that an employer may dismiss a worker before the expiration of that time. Therefore, sponsorship of an individual for such a visa does not imply that the sponsor has guaranteed employment for the full period of the visa’s duration.