3 tales to test interest in practice ownership


Lawsuits and nuisance employees should give aspiring veterinary owners perspective.

As the summer draws to a close, this tends to be the time when many associate veterinarians ponder their long-term aspirations. Should they stay associates? Is it time to move on? Maybe next year would be a good time to buy or start a practice?

It's always easier to focus on the benefits of being one's own boss than it is to try to imagine the disadvantages. There certainly are benefits: lifetime income is generally higher for owners, and they don't have to obtain permission to take time off or to order new drugs or equipment. But there are downsides associated with business ownership. The typical associate may not notice the bosses or office managers contending with the hassles and day-to-day headaches.

Photo source: Getty ImagesThis summer my office has heard from a record number of these irritated and agitated practice owners and their management personnel. One of these weary veterinarians said, “None of my hired veterinarians have any idea what this practice is up against day-to-day.” It dawned on me that it'd be fun to share a few anecdotes that I've heard from practice owners.

Maybe these stories will resonate with practice owners. They might give pause to associates who don't believe that owning and operating a veterinary clinic is all that tough. It could help them decide whether they're suited to be owners.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Negligent horse doctor

A large animal veterinarian contacted me about a problem with his mobile practice. One of his employees had been driving him to a horse call and, while they were stopped at a traffic light at the bottom of a steep hill, a bicyclist came barreling down the hill behind him. The bicyclist made no effort to stop and crashed into the mobile veterinary unit. The bicyclist (along with the partially consumed can of Budweiser in his pocket) went sailing over the back of the truck.

The obviously inebriated driver said he was fine. But the veterinarian and his assistant could both clearly see he had an injury. The police were summoned, and the bicyclist was taken by EMTs to the local hospital.

The bicyclist had a broken collarbone, but it wasn't so painful that he couldn't dial a telephone. A day or so after the accident, he got in touch with one of those lawyers with the giant billboard ads. Within the week, the veterinarian, the driver and the practice were all served with lawsuit papers claiming personal injury resulting from negligent driving.

Employee attendance optional

Not long ago, a clinic in New York state hired a kennel assistant. After working three or four weeks, the new hire became agitated by something or someone at the clinic. She stormed out at lunchtime, halfway through her shift, and never returned. A few days thereafter the bookkeeper sent the employee's final paycheck to the address listed on her W-9.

The following Monday, the state labor board mailed the clinic a letter stating that the worker who had left the clinic without warning or excuse would be granted her claim for unemployment benefits. The practice owner and office manager were outraged.

Eventually, after the involvement of a lawyer and several meetings with labor department representatives and administrative law judges, the approval was reversed. Was there reimbursement or compensation for the clinic's lost time and legal fees? Not a chance.

Double dipper

This story is one of my faves. A Pennsylvania small animal clinic had hired a new exam room assistant about eight months earlier. The guy did a good job and things seemed to be going along well until the bookkeeper got a call from another practice about two miles away. “Betty, this is Dr. Thompson. I just called a few minutes ago, and the guy who answered your phone-I think I know him. Does Phil Monroe work at your place?”

“Yes,” the bookkeeper replied. “He started full-time at the clinic about six months ago.”

Dr. Thompson replied, “Did you know he's still collecting unemployment benefits from us?”

No, the bookkeeper said, indeed she did not.

When confronted, Phil said there must have been a clerical error at the state unemployment office. He insisted that it was all just a big misunderstanding.

Then the phone calls started coming in from the state.

Phil's current employer had to spend at least 20 hours collecting payroll information, comparing it to time cards, answering telephone inquiries from the state investigator and attending onsite visits with the New York State Department of Labor.

Naturally, Phil had to be off work in order to meet with his lawyer, the state investigators, the administrative law judge and so on. That resulted in overtime pay for one of the clinic's other employees-but of course there was no compensation for the overtime from the government or from Phil.

The final outcome? Phil had received the unemployment insurance checks, endorsed them and deposited the money. He knew exactly what he was doing when he started with his new employer, but he didn't expect to get caught.

What Phil had discovered, no doubt from prior experience or from one of his upstanding buddies, is that if a person starts a new job part time, the state government may not notice that you're also receiving unemployment. The only thing that stopped Phil from illegally receiving the full course of unearned unemployment benefits was a happenstance call from his former employer. Pure luck.

Even though unemployment insurance fraud is a felony, Phil never received a sentence, never had to perform community service and never experienced any real disincentive to repeat the double-dip in the future. He was required to pay restitution to his first employer for the $10,000 theft-at $15 per week.

Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He can be reached via e-mail at info@veterinarylaw.com.

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