Are physician noncompete agreements enforceable? They can be, depending on the circumstances, though there are few reported decisions in Colorado analyzing such agreements. In one recent case, the Colorado Court of Appeals concluded that, following a merger, the surviving physicians entity could not enforce a noncompete provision against a dissenting shareholder-physician. The Court also concluded that an amount of damages calculated under a liquidated damages clause in the agreement must be reasonably related to an actual injury suffered by the entity as a result of the physician’s departure and competition, not simply a prospective injury estimated at the time the contract was created. Crocker v. Greater Colorado Anesthesia, P.C., 2018 COA 33.
Noncompete and Liquidated Damages Provision
Anesthesiologist Michael Crocker was a shareholder in, and employee of, Greater Colorado Anesthesia, P.C. (Old GCA). In April 2013, Dr. Crocker signed a shareholder employment agreement with Old GCA that contained a noncompete provision. In relevant part, the noncompete stated that if Dr. Crocker competed with Old GCA by participating in the practice of anesthesia within fifteen miles of a hospital serviced by Old GCA in the two years following termination of the agreement, he would be liable for liquidated damages as calculated by a stated formula. The restricted geographic area included nearly all of the Denver metro area, from Broomfield on the north to Castle Rock on the south. The agreement further stated that the liquidated damages provision would survive termination of the agreement for a period of two years, or until all amounts due by the employee to the company were paid in full.
Physician Objects To Merger
In January 2015, the shareholder-physicians of Old GCA faced a vote on whether to approve a merger that would result in a 90-doctor corporation. In exchange for accepting a 21.3% reduction in pay and making a five-year employment commitment, the shareholder-physicians would receive a substantial lump sum of cash plus stock. Dr. Crocker voted against the merger and provided notice under Colorado law that he would demand payment for his share of Old GCA in exercise of his dissenter’s rights. The other shareholder-physicians approved the merger resulting in a new corporation (New GCA).
Dr. Crocker never worked at New GCA. In March 2015, he signed an employment agreement with a different anesthesia group that included providing services at Parker Adventist Hospital, which was within GCA’s noncompete restricted area. Old GCA sent him $100 for his share in the group, which he refused. New GCA sought to enforce Dr. Crocker’s noncompete provision, seeking liquidated damages under the stated formula, while Dr. Crocker sought a higher valuation of his share in Old GCA.
Physician’s Shareholder Rights Were Intertwined With Employee Rights
The Colorado Court of Appeals noted that generally, a noncompete provision will survive a merger, allowing the surviving entity to enforce the noncompete restrictions. But it drew a line in Dr. Crocker’s scenario, finding that his shareholder rights were wed to his rights as an employee. He could not be an employee without being a shareholder, and he could not be a shareholder without being an employee. Consequently, when he exercised his dissenter’s rights in opposing the merger and sought payment for his share in Old GCA, Dr. Crocker was forced to quit his employment with GCA. Therefore, the Court stated that it could not construe the enforceability of the noncompete provision without consideration of Dr. Crocker’s rights as a dissenter. Finding no prior authority evaluating a noncompete under such circumstances, the Court decided that it could only enforce the noncompete if it is reasonable, and to be reasonable, it must not impose hardship on the employee.
Noncompete Unreasonable Due to Hardship on Employee
Because an anesthesiologist must live within approximately 30 minutes of where he or she works, enforcement of the Old GCA noncompete provision against Dr. Crocker would require that he either move outside of the restricted geographic area or pay liquidated damages to GCA. The Court stated that enforcement in that circumstance would “further penalize [Dr.] Crocker’s exercise of his right to dissent, rather than protect him from the conduct of the majority.” The Court ruled that the noncompete provision imposed a hardship on Dr. Crocker and therefore was unreasonable. Read more