An English doctor, in the United States on a visa, joined the radiology clinic at a Pennsylvania medical center. But the center required that he become certified by the American Board of Radiology, which required him to serve for 4 years in an approved residency program. Did his agreement with that stipulation constitute an employment contract? He believed it did.
What happened. In July 2006, radiologist "Ernst" was given an offer letter by the Geisinger Clinic in Danville, which included the requirement that he be board-certified within 6 years and said his continued employment would not be guaranteed if he failed to win certification. The letter was intended to serve as proof that Ernst was entitled to sit for the board exams. Ernst then briefly returned to England when his temporary visa expired. He applied for an H-1B visa, based on his and Geisinger’s representations that he would be employed for at least 3 years.
Ernst began working in the radiology clinic in 2007. But in May 2008, Geisinger terminated him. He sued for breach of contract, arguing that he and Geisinger, based on both the offer letter and the documentation for his H-1B visa, had entered into an express employment contract. Before a federal district judge, however, Geisinger showed that, on the same date as the offer letter, Ernst had also signed what it called a practice agreement—what many employers call an employee handbook.
It was a multi-page document that somewhere included what most employers refer to as an at-will employment disclaimer—that an employee can quit or be fired for any reason or no reason. So the judge ruled for Geisinger. Ernst appealed to the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
What the court said. Ernst not only argued he had a contract but also that the executive who had asked him to sign the practice agreement didn’t give him a chance to read it. So, he had unknowingly accepted an at-will status. Appellate judges studied the offer letter, ruling that it was "too vague to establish an express contract for a definite term." They also pointed to the language in the offer letter implying that Ernst would lose his employment if he failed to be certified in the allotted time—not a guarantee of employment. Nor was the H-1B employment period a guarantee. Finally, the signed practice agreement ensured Ernst was an at-will employee. Edwards v. Geisinger Clinic, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, No. 11-1528 (2012).
Point to remember: Judges noted that the Immigration and Nationality Act specifies that an employer may terminate an employee before his or her H-1B has expired.