The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently rejected claims by a physician that he was not an at-will employee because his employer's H-1B sponsorship for three years constituted an express contract of employment. Edwards v. Geisinger Clinic, No. 11-1528 (3d Cir. Jan. 23, 2012). In Edwards, the plaintiff was a licensed physician from the United Kingdom who specialized in interventional radiology, and who was recruited to work at the Geisinger clinic ("Clinic") in Pennsylvania. During the interview process, Dr. Edwards indicated that he wanted to obtain certification from the American Board of Radiology ("ABR"), a process that required uninterrupted employment in an approved residency program for at least four years. The Clinic then accepted Dr. Edwards into a residency program that would enable him to achieve this objective. This acceptance was memorialized in a formal offer letter that promised Dr. Edwards that he would receive four to six years to secure ABR certification, which was an absolute requirement for all physicians at the Clinic. The offer letter also was subject to a practice agreement that Dr. Edwards admitted he did not review. In the practice agreement, Dr. Edwards acknowledged that his employment at the Clinic was "at will" and that the agreement could be "terminated at any time by either party for any or no reason."
The Clinic sponsored Dr. Edwards for an H-1B nonimmigrant visa that was valid initially for up to three years but could be extended for an additional three-year period. Dr. Edwards was admitted to the United States pursuant to this H-1B visa in 2007. In May 2008, the Clinic terminated Dr. Edwards's employment; he sued for breach of contract, claiming that, among other things, the Clinic's H-1B sponsorship constituted a commitment to employ him for at least three years. The district court granted summary judgment to the Clinic and dismissed Dr. Edwards's complaint on the ground that the practice agreement clearly defined his employment relationship with the Clinic as one that was at will. The Third Circuit affirmed. In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel found that Dr. Edwards's reliance on the Clinic's support for ABR certification was "too vague to establish an express contract for a definite term." The panel also rejected Dr. Edwards's argument that the Clinic's H-1B sponsorship constituted an express employment agreement. According to the panel, "… an H-1B visa does not guarantee employment for the visa's maximum duration. Indeed, the Immigration and Nationality Act expressly contemplates that an employer may dismiss a worker with an H-1B visa before the end of the visa's maximum duration."
The Third Circuit's decision in Edwards follows a growing trend to reject claims by FNs that sponsorship for their visa classification constituted an express contract of employment for the maximum duration of the visa. In each of these cases, however, the underlying employment contract and immigration documentation directly contradicted such an argument. In all of these situations, therefore, it is important for employers to make sure that their immigration documentation, employment policies, offers of employment, and employment contracts foreclose the type of claim that Dr. Edwards raised in his case.