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The top 10 reasons for contract disputes
In the world of veterinary employment agreements, the sun shines mostly on the same old points of contention.
When I was a veterinary student, I was pretty much convinced that every appointment I would ever see would be something new that neither I, nor any other animal doctor, had encountered before. Consequently, it had to be impossible to learn everything I would need to know.
It wasn't too long after I entered general practice that I realized the vast majority of appointments I would see in one week were eerily similar to the cases I had encountered the week before. In fact, professional practice could become somewhat routine, at least in terms of the types and categories of problems presented for resolution.
And much the same way as sore rear legs tend to be injured cruciates, and bulging red ophthalmic tumors tend to be cherry-eye surgery candidates, associate contracts presented to veterinary lawyers tend to present a consistent set of issues. In the world of veterinary employment agreements, the sun shines mostly on the same old points of contention.
As was reiterated throughout our veterinary education, common problems occur commonly. This month, as a tip of the hat to the graduating class of 2010 and to the experienced practitioners anticipating the contract negotiation season, permit me to offer my top 10 list of commonly disputed employment contract clauses. We'll start out easy.
1 Can I bring my dog with me to work?
This may not seem like a big deal and probably needn't be in the employment agreement, but I suggest that you have a policy concerning employees' pets at work. On one hand, dog babysitting can be expensive for employees, and dropping them off frequently makes them late for work. On the other hand, dogs at the office can result in an awful lot of occupied kennels that could otherwise be used for paying customers. Your kennel staff time and dog food aren't free, either. This is your call.
2 Do my vacation days carry over into subsequent contract years?
Many employers don't allow this. I am not sure why that is. My feeling is that if employer veterinarians permit carryover vacation and/or sick days, they are buying themselves the moral right to request an employed doctor not use such time in a given year when the clinic is short-staffed or during a summer that is unusually busy.
3 Is this non-compete really enforceable?
This one is easy. Employers: Don't draft a non-compete if you have doubts about its fairness or reasonableness. Employees: Never sign a non-compete assuming you can get out of it later.
4 Does my commission percentage include refill prescriptions?
How about medicated baths? Dentals you supervise but don't actually perform? Here's an idea: Have the contract list what you do and do not get commission for. Or you could just guess and have a big fight later. You pick.
5 Does the contract renew automatically?
I believe that employed doctors and their bosses should revisit the paperwork each year. If your agreement renews unless some specific act (e.g., written notice) is undertaken, put the deadline in your planner.
6 Can I "sell" my vacation time or sick time back to the practice?
With student debt mounting and employer veterinarians always wishing they had more time off, why not consider allowing young doctors to work more days for a little more pay?
7 Is my non-compete a circle, an oval, or potentially cloud-shaped?
I believe that a non-compete should be described as a radius from a set address. Phrasing such as "x miles from any office operated by the employer..." invites risk of a non-compete distance expanding when the clinic unexpectedly opens a satellite or buys out a competitor.
8 Can the employed veterinarian be terminated without cause?
A year contract isn't really a year contract if the new doctor can be let go for any reason at any time. If both parties want this degree of flexibility, fine. Just know where you stand as an employee so that you don't work for five months just to be fired yet still stuck with a non-compete.
9 Does the non-compete prevent "solicitation"?
It is common for non-compete clauses to prevent working in a certain specific region. However, if the terms prevent "solicitation" of former clients, make sure this term is defined. Can you call former clients? Can you advertise to them using letters or e-mails? Does a billboard advertisement constitute a violation?
10 Should you consider a non-compete "buy-out"?
Sometimes it makes sense for the parties to agree that, for a specified sum, the employed doctor may be released from the non-compete. This can offer protection to the employer but prevent the employee from having to battle in court if they wish to stay in town to practice elsewhere.
Dr. Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call (607) 754-1510 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org