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Are non-competes for New York doctors enforceable?

Many health care providers require their physicians to sign non-compete agreements. Some patients have faced the nightmare scenario of trying to call the physician who's been caring for them throughout a serious illness, only to be told the doctor is simply gone. No further information is available.

Public attitudes toward non-competes are not especially positive, and some states have imposed greater limits on physician non-competes. New York is not among them, but such contracts do have limitations in New York.

Non-competes sometimes don't hold up in court

It's not unusual for a non-compete to be found unenforceable once it's challenged in court, and several states permitting non-competes in most contracts simply won't enforce them between physicians and their employers.

Texas and Tennessee explicitly limit their enforceability, with Texas requiring physicians to have uninterrupted access to the records of recent patients. The Texas Medical Board even requires a physician's former workplace to post the doctor's new contact information, at the doctor's request.

So far, there's little sign of such reforms from New York State, the American Medical Association or the New York Office of Professions. But New York's civil courts may be unwilling to keep doctors and patients apart, and doctors who don't want to abandon their cases should contact experienced business law counsel.

In thinking about your individual case, it might help to consider a few tests courts often apply to non-compete to assess their enforceability.

Enforceable contracts must be reasonable

The byword for non-competes that want to withstand court scrutiny is reasonableness.

A non-compete must have a reasonable geographic scope, so restricting a family dentist from practicing east of the Mississippi River would be difficult. Barring work within a 10-mile radius of Albany might come closer to the goal of geographic reasonableness.

However, given that New York City's five boroughs are host to more than 8.5 million people, a 10-mile radius around Battery Park may be less likely to pass the test of reasonable geographic scope.

Also, the non-compete's duration must be reasonable. Medical practices have turnover, and patients come and go no matter who used to work where. Over time, the clinic can't reasonably argue that their practice has been damaged by doctors in other clinics accepting new patients.

Finally, the non-compete must protect a legitimate business interest. If a cardiologist leaves a practice that has stopped providing cardiology care, a non-compete binding the former cardiologist seems unlikely to be enforceable.

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