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Justices split on transfer of noncompete case

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Two Indiana Supreme Court justices disagreed with their colleagues in not accepting an appeal, finding that a ruling from the state's intermediate appellate court muddled caselaw on medical business and noncompete agreements, and significantly jeopardizes the public's access to medical care.

In a seven-page dissent authored by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and joined by Justice Brent Dickson, the two jurists get into why they would have granted transfer in the case of Mercho-Roushdi-Shoemaker-Dilley Thoraco-Vascular Corp. (MRSD) v. James W. Blatchford, III, M.D., and Eve G. Cieutat, No. 84A01-0801-CV-30.

The Feb. 5, 2009, Court of Appeals decision involves the enforceability of a noncompete agreement between doctors and a physicians' group, and this transfer denial keeps in place that holding that could significantly impact Indiana's medical community.

Originating from Vigo Superior No.1, the case goes back more than a decade and involves a group of open-heart surgeons in Indianapolis and Terre Haute who recruited a husband-wife team from Texas to provide more staff capacity at one location. All parties negotiated agreements covering multiple aspects of their business relationship, from stock purchasing to dissolution procedures and noncompete provisions. When the Texas doctors decided several years later to set up a competing practice of their own in Terre Haute, they and their former associates sued each other.

That first round of litigation went to the Court of Appeals, which in 2001 affirmed a trial judge's denial of injunctive relief for the Indiana-based physicians on grounds that an adequate remedy existed at law. But a second round of litigation ensued, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling and held that the noncompete agreements weren't enforceable. In its decision from earlier this year, the three-judge panel unanimously held that enforcing the physicians' business agreements in this case is harmful to patients and contrary to public policy. Specifically, it affirmed solely based on the public interest prong of noncompetition agreement evaluation.

Deciding on the issue during its weekly conference Dec. 17, three justices agreed with the appellate panel's decision and voted not to accept the case. But Chief Justice Shepard and Justice Dickson disagreed with their colleagues.

The chief justice found issues with how James Blatchford and Eve Cieutat had no Indiana connections yet raised arguments that "people would die without (them) practicing in Terre Haute, that it would be very difficult to recruit doctors with their level of training to the area, and that there would be a shortage of capable doctors if they left." The two doctors have since left the state to practice elsewhere.

The chief justice wrote that the physicians group MRSD, and others in similar situations, likely wouldn't have recruited the Texas doctors or any others from outside Indiana if noncompete agreements weren't an option.

"While it is appropriate to treat employment agreements involving doctors with special care, failure to enforce at law the business agreements among doctors will mean fewer doctors available to patients, not more," he wrote, adding later that the Court of Appeals decision "muddles the caselaw of the medical business."

"This case illustrates why non-enforcement of such agreements has the potential to detract from the public interest. Denying damages to a practice seeking to enforce its business arrangements detracts from the very public interests that this Court's decisions aim to protect - patient access to medical care," Chief Justice Shepard wrote. "I think the patients (and doctors) would be well served by vacating the Court of Appeals' declaration that business arrangements between physicians are not enforceable."

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