Employment “At-Will” Presumption Alive and Well in Pennsylvania

Posted on February 15, 2012

As the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reiterated last month in Edwards v. Geisinger Clinic, No. 11-1528 (January 23, 2012), Pennsylvania remains firmly an “at-will” employment state. Even though an employee without a contract for a specific term of employment is deemed an at-will employee in most states, the Third Circuit demonstrated in Geisinger just how difficult it is to overcome the at-will presumption in Pennsylvania.

In that case, the plaintiff, Philip Edwards, a licensed physician from the United Kingdom, was recruited by Geisinger Clinic to work at its interventional radiology department in Danville, Pennsylvania. On July 5, 2006, Geisinger delivered to Edwards a formal offer letter which made board certification a condition of employment. The letter provided that Edwards would “be granted 4-6 years from the date of employment to become board certified,” and stated that if he failed to obtain board certification within six years, “continued employment . . . will need to be reevaluated.” The offer letter further noted that employment was subject to executing a “Practice Agreement,” which Geisinger initially failed to enclose with the offer letter.

Two months after he had already began working for Geisinger, Edwards was then asked to sign the “Practice Agreement” referenced in his original offer letter. The Agreement provided that Edwards “acknowledge[s] that [his] employment with Geisinger is ‘at will’ and may be terminated at any time by either party for any or no reason.” Despite signing the Practice Agreement, Edwards contended that he did not see the “at will” language because he was given a very short period of time to review the Agreement and “had a patient waiting on the table.”

In May 2008, Edwards’ employment was terminated. Consequently, he sued Geisinger for breach of contract, seeking declaratory relief, specific performance, and a preliminary injunction. Geisinger moved for summary judgment, arguing that Edwards’ employment contract was at-will. The District Court agreed and granted Geisinger’s motion, and Edwards appealed.

On appeal, Edwards asserted that the District Court erred in holding that his employment was at-will because he had raised a genuine issue of material fact of whether he had an express contract for a definite term. Among other things, Edwards argued that Geisinger did not include an at-will disclaimer in its offer letter or in its employment application and Geisinger represented to the United States immigration authorities that it committed to hire Edwards for a definite term.

Before dispensing each of Edwards’ contentions, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reiterated the widely recognized notion that Pennsylvania law presumes that employment is at-will. The Court added that to overcome the presumption of employment at-will, an employee “must show clear and precise evidence” that the parties intended to enter an employment contract for a definite term.

The Third Circuit Court found that Geisinger and Edwards demonstrated their mutual intent for Edwards to be an employee at-will when they both willingly signed the Practice Agreement. While the Court acknowledged Edwards’ assertion that he did not notice the Practice Agreement’s at-will term due to the short time he had to review the Agreement, it added that “[i]gnorance of the contents of a document or failure to read before signing is no defense to a contractual obligation under Pennsylvania law.”

The Edwards v. Geisinger decision, while favorable, serves as a reminder to all employers and human resources personnel to make certain that unambiguous “at-will” employment language is included in every employment application, offer letter, and employee handbook. The language should also be set in a large font, bolded, underlined and/or highlighted to ensure that it is clearly visible to each employee.

For more information about the Edwards v. Geisinger decision, or for general guidance about what it means to be “at-will,” please contact a Knox Labor and Employment attorney at (814) 459-2800.

Article written by Joseph V. Balestrino.

Labor & Employment Department Attorneys

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