Good luck overcoming the at-will employment presumption in PA

rockhardplace.jpgIn Pennsylvania, as in most states, an employee without a contract for a specific term of employment is deemed an at-will employee. Subject to certain exceptions (e.g., discrimination, violations of public policy), an at-will employee can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all.

How hard is it to overcome the at-will employment presumption? Pretty darn hard, as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reminded us last week. More on this decision and some tips for employers after the jump…

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Dr. Edwards receives some mixed messages from his employer.

In Edwards v. Geisinger Clinic, a doctor from the U.K. landed a job at a clinic in Pennsylvania. Prior to commencing his employment. Geisinger made several representations — both verbal and written — to Dr. Edwards, which he believed evidenced Geisinger’s intent to enter into an employment agreement for a specific term. However, one to two months after Dr. Edwards began working for Geisinger, he signed a Practice Agreement referenced in his original offer letter. The Practice Agreement provided that Edwards “acknowledge[d] that [his] employment with Geisinger is `at will’ and may be terminated at any time by either party for any or no reason.” The following year, Geisinger fired Dr. Edwards. So, he subsequently sued for breach of contract.

Dr. Edwards is SOL.

In his lawsuit, Dr. Edwards raised a series of arguments that he had an express contract for a definite term, all of which related back to events preceding his execution of the Practice Agreement. The court proceeded to dispense with all four. However, before it did so, it talked about the effect of an employee agreeing to an at-will provision in an employment agreement.

Pay close attention:

[W]e believe that Geisinger and Edwards demonstrated their mutual intent for Edwards to be an employee at-will when they both willingly signed the Practice Agreement … Edwards counters that he did not notice the Practice Agreement’s at-will term because he reviewed the Practice Agreement quickly. However, “[i]gnorance of the contents of a document or failure to read before signing is no defense to a contractual obligation under Pennsylvania law.” … We believe that [the relevant cases] nonetheless support recognizing the Practice Agreement’s at-will language as evidence of the parties’ mutual intent and understanding.

Employer takeaway:

Make sure that your employment applications, offer letters, employment agreements, employee handbooks, and appropriate HR policies are emblazoned (i.e., don’t have it in the fine print) with clear and concise at will employment language. And don’t make any statements to the contrary.

  • James L Holt Jr.

    Good for PA!  And good thing they didn’t open the door to the ignorance defense since I hear that in plaintiff depositions quite frequently.

    • Thank you for the comment. It is very tough in Pennsylvania to prove a term agreement. Across the river in NJ, however…