Appeals panel: Ultrasound company's contract forcing workers who quit within a year to repay wages 'unconscionable'

By Gabriel Neves | Dec 20, 2018

CHICAGO – A state appeals panel has tossed out a lawsuit brought by a fetal ultrasound company, which sought to force a former employee to repay her earnings because she quit 6 months after her hire, as the court agreed the contract requiring this repayment was "unconscionable."

On Dec. 5, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court upheld the decision of Cook County Judge James Snyder, in favor of defendant Alicia Weideman, in the legal action brought by her ex-employer First Peek Ultrasound LLC.

Judge Snyder decided the employment agreement was not enforceable, and the appellate justices ruled the lower court did not err in deciding in favor of Weideman.

Justice James Fitzgerald Smith authored the decision, with justices David Ellis and Cynthia Cobbs concurring.

"In the present case, we find that the employment agreement, and particularly the 'training' provision, which requires Weideman to repay her wages, and be liable for additional costs, if she quits her employment prior to one year, to be substantively unconscionable," Smith wrote. "For a part-time employee, earning $10 per hour while training, such a provision is tantamount to forced labor as it discourages her from quitting, regardless of her reasons (be it child care, illness, or other better employment opportunities) by impressing on her the gargantuan burden of having to repay all of her hard earned wages."

Both Weideman and First Peek entered an employment agreement on April 20, 2016. 

That agreement contained 12 pages, divided in 30 sections, and stated that Weideman's employment would start on that date, established a minimum length of employment of one year, and that she would give a one-month notice in case she left the job.

On the salary tab of the agreement, Weideman would be paid hourly, at rates of $28 per hour, if the employee is certified by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), or $20 per hour, if not certified.

Another tab, called "training," required Weideman to repay wages and other expenses if she left the employment for any reason within 12 months. This section also required her to attend training, to be paid at a rate of $10 an hour, and that she would not be paid a regular wage until she became "proficiently capable."

As stated in the ruling, "the employment agreement further contains a section titled 'Probationary Period,' which reads in full: 'The first six months of your employments is a probationary period. Through this evaluation period, you will be informed of your progress. Please note that your continued employment during this period is not guaranteed. You may be terminated during this time for any reason, without notice.'"

Weideman was employed for six months before resigning on Oct. 25, 2016.

As a result of the resignation, First Peek sued Weideman claiming she breached the agreement and leveling defamation allegations.

According to the appellate order, First Peek claimed that "the breach of contract claim alleged that under the employment agreement Weideman had agreed to work for First Peek for a minimum of one year in exchange for valuable and unique training, but that contrary to the express terms of that agreement, she suddenly and unexpectedly left her employment after only six months."

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment, and, in Cook County court, Judge Snyder denied First Peek's motion, stating, as of the decision, that "the employment agreement was, at least, in part, illegal, unenforceable, and void as against Illinois law and public policy."

On appeal, Smith sided with Snyder's reasoning, stating that "we therefore conclude that the trial court did not err when it found the entire contract unconscionable and entered judgment in favor of Weideman."

The appellate decision is an unpublished order issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, which limits its use as precedent. 

According to Cook County court records, First Peek is represented by attorneys with the Patterson Law Firm LLC, of Chicago.

Weideman is represented by the firm of Harrison & Held LLP, of Chicago.

Illinois 1st District Appellate Court case number 1-18-0858

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Circuit Court of Cook County Harrison & Held Illinois First District Appellate Court The Patterson Law Firm

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