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A Sublease Eye Doc Didn’t Work Out

Should the optician/owner pursue their non-compete?

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ROXANNE WAS AT HER desk on a Sunday afternoon reviewing bills and rubbing at stress hives on her neck. The optician-owner of a gorgeous boutique near Sioux Falls, Roxanne was at her wits’ end with her sub-leaser, Dr. King. The women had a meeting scheduled to try to resolve their differences.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are not a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you have any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NATALIE TAYLOR is owner of Artisan Eyewear in Meredith, NH. She offers regional private practice consulting and ABO/COPE approved presentations. Email her at [email protected]

The pair met the previous year at a CE event and hit it off. Dr. King, a stay-at-home parent of several years, was inspired to return to work part time, and Roxanne was inspired to offer eye exams to her loyal client base. They created a two-year contract including a non-compete clause limiting Dr. King from practicing within 3 miles of her office within a year of contract termination, on penalty of several thousand dollars. Once the commitment was made, Roxanne retrofitted storage space into an exam lane and purchased second-hand equipment.

Roxanne, waiting impatiently, now ran through the details in her mind to prepare for a contentious discussion. The terms of their agreement were 8-10 comprehensive exams in 4 hours for a flat rent. Patients scheduled with Dr. King directly so she could book around her family commitments. She billed and collected all exam fees, while Roxanne’s employees pretested, collected co-pays, and processed contact lens orders.

For a few months everything went well. Then the financial disagreements began: Dr. King started scheduling just 2-3 patients a day and decided it would be fair to only pay rent every second or third week. Payments on the equipment leases were now greater than the rent. Roxanne was also seeing lots of shipping charges for contact lens trial orders, which Dr. King felt were the responsibility of the business as they profited from supply sales.

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The front door squeaked and a moment later Dr. King sat down at Roxanne’s desk. She looked worn but resolute. “I know you called this meeting,” she began, “but I’d like to speak first.”

Roxanne nodded and pushed her paperwork to the side. “Okay, I’m ready.”

“I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I just don’t think this is a good fit for me,” said Dr. King. “I’m tendering my resignation, effective 2 weeks out. I don’t have any patients booked past then anyway.”

Roxanne’s eyes bugged. “You’re quitting?!” she managed to get out, throwing her head back and staring at the ceiling. “You’re quitting.”

“This just isn’t fun for me,” she continued. “I don’t like your stress towards me, and I feel like I’m being nickel-and-dimed.”

“Are you leaving to go work somewhere else?” asked Roxanne.

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“No, my wife and I don’t rely on my income,” she said.

Roxanne sighed. “Well, it sounds like your mind is made up. It stinks we weren’t able to resolve things, but … I get it.” As soon as Dr. King left, Roxanne got to work posting the job vacancy online.

A few weeks after Dr. King’s last day, Roxanne’s lab tech stopped her in the hallway. “I just heard through the grapevine, Dr. King is seeing patients over at Family Vision Center,” he whispered. Exasperated, Roxanne thanked him and went to call her lawyer about enforcing the non-compete clause. Family Vision Center was less than 2 miles away!

The Big Questions

  • In what way could Roxanne and Dr. King have changed their agreement to mutually improve the situation?
  • If Dr. King bills for a contact lens fitting and the boutique bills for the supply, who pays the shipping and handling of trial lenses?
  • Is a non-compete clause justified for a sublease doctor? If the lawyer deems the contract enforceable, would you pursue?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Andy H.
Jacksboro, TN

This scenario poses a significant problem for the optician/owner. I’m not sure how I’d resolve this situation, but it could’ve been avoided if a reputable business consultant had designed the contract. A professional consultant would have covered all the disputed variables. I think it’s interesting that a recent INVISION survey showed a mere one in four ECPs use consultants, and this Real Deal demonstrates the need to do just that. We’re all pretty smart about eyes, but not many of us can claim to be experts in business.

Chris G.
Inver Grove Heights, MN

First, I didn’t see a copy of the non-compete document. Some of these documents are unenforceable depending on the laws in the state where this occurred. Second, all costs should be negotiated at the beginning of the employment. Third, even if a lawyer deems the contract enforceable, it can still be nullified by a myriad of other factors. Having said this, if all the contingencies are met in the agreement and it is enforceable, I would go after it immediately. Another part is who owns the files in the office. That should be negotiated as well.

Bill K.
Houston, Tx

Bad terms of agreement upfront. Starts bad, ends bad.
1. More concrete terms and understanding.
2. Cost of trials? Ever hear of fitting sets?
3. Non-compete should hold up if written correctly.
Not a bunch of 2-year-olds at play. Grow up and live up to your commitments. “I don’t feel like I am respected.” Blah blah blah.

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Anna T.
Claremont, CA

First of all, they should have spoken more about what was expected from the lease. Possibly going through a broker to have a legal agreement prepared with terms stating that the lease was to be paid every week and that X amount of patients were expected per week. Also, they should have agreed upon the costs of the lenses, and who was paying for shipping charges in the agreement. Ultimately, I think that the doctor just did not have the right work ethic for this sort of collaboration. I think that the doctor’s fees should cover the trial shipping costs. I believe the non-compete is justified. However, since this doctor did not spend very much time working at the location, I am not sure that she would be much competition if she were to set up office in a nearby location. Most likely with her work ethic she would not be much of a business owner in the future.

Rigo L.
Indio, CA

Ohh, the drama! It’s always easier to blame the other person. Both Roxanne and Dr. King gave up too soon; communication is key. It was unprofessional for Dr. King to quit. It’s not expected but the doctor should feel heavily responsible — in this case it looks like it was all business. The shipping and other stuff could have been worked out if both were willing to keep to their agreement; at the end of the day they still made a profit. As far as pursuing the non-compete clause, it sounds exhausting, expensive and time-consuming, but if this is going to save my business, I would go ahead with it.

Darrell L.
Goodlettsville, TN

The contract should have spelled out the particulars of fees, bills and supplies. Leaving things open-ended always creates problems. The non-compete is justified and was agreed to in writing, therefore it is binding. If the tables were turned, the doctor would likely pursue reimbursement for damages from the optician.

Frank U.
Bakersfield, CA

No lawyer; lesson learned, find another doctor.

Wilfredo M.
Philadelphia, PA

Unless Roxanne and the doctor agreed to bringing another doctor to work more hours, I don’t see how. Two or three exams a day doesn’t justify the expense of equipment, or cutting the space to put in an exam room.

The optical should pay for shipping for trials, but also keep in mind that for trials at least a commitment for the sale of the contacts should be engaged, or an order for glasses should be placed — and then seen as a courtesy from the optical, not from the doctor.

Whatever is the right and legal thing to do. If the income was not the issue based on Dr. King’s answer, why work in a place that close? People should not be allowed to conduct a market study while working with you and then become your competition! Keep in mind that patients are the “property” of the doctor, who did the billing.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. eyecare business serving the public, you’re invited to join the INVISION Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting eyecare professionals. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Natalie Taylor is an experienced optometry practice manager for Advanced Care Vision Network and a consultant with Taylor Vision. Learn more at tayloreye.com.

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