The average physician employment contract exceeds twenty pages, not including exhibits. While they all include basic terms related to compensation, length and restrictions, many simply do not contemplate important terms that have serious impacts on physician’s daily lives. A physician’s first employment contract is the most significant financial decision of their lifetime. The same can be said for each subsequent contract, which means that understanding, and negotiating, your contract is the most valuable investment you can make prior to entering into a contract.
To understand what’s in your employment contract, simply read it over a few times. To understand not only how those terms affect you, but also what isn’t in your contract, hire an experienced health care lawyer.
Over the past few years, it seems like physician employment agreements are getting shorter and shorter. While I applaud all efforts towards efficiency and economy, you should not always take those documents at face value. For example, I recently reviewed a one page employment contract for a client. That single page basically said, “We are hiring you as our employee for a term of one year, with an annual salary of $$$.”
At first glance, the simplicity of that document might seem refreshing. That’s especially true if you’re worried about how much time it’s going to take for your lawyer to get through it! My client’s second glance revealed a multitude of unanswered (and essential) questions. There was no mention of expected duties, schedules, standards, renewals, terminations, insurance, benefits, vacation time, sick leave, CME, etc. in the employment contract However, when we reviewed the contract together, we discovered that although those points were not even referenced on that single page, they were still legally, “in there.”
Across the healthcare industry, providers and healthcare businesses are consistently faced with the decision of whether to employ or contract with their workers. Whether it’s a physician working with a group practice, or a marketer on behalf of a healthcare service, correctly structuring relationships between healthcare businesses and their workers is important. For tax reasons, many workers strongly prefer to enter into independent contractor relationships. However, simply calling oneself an independent contractor is not enough to solidify the relationship. Many times, workers who call themselves independent contractors are actually employees in the minds of the government. And sometimes, so-called “employees” with several part-time positions are actually viewed as independent contractors.
On July 15, 2015 the Administrator of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) provided additional guidance regarding the application of the standards for determining who is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The goal of the guidance is to help the regulated community in classifying workers and decreasing misclassification. The Administrator’s Interpretation reviews the pertinent FLSA definitions and the breadth of employment relationships covered by the FLSA. The Administrator’s Interpretation then addresses each of the factors of the “economic realities test”.
According to the Administrator, when determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor, the application of the economic realities factors should be guided by the FLSA’s statutory directive that the scope of the employment is very broad. The FLSA’s definitions establish the scope of the employment relationship under the Act and provide the basis for distinguishing between employees and independent contractor.
The Supreme Court and Circuit Court of Appeals have developed a multi-factorial “economic realities” test to make the determination whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor under the FLSA. The test focuses on whether the worker is economically dependent on the employer or in business for him or herself. The factors include:
The Tuomey decision, U.S. Court of Appeals case out of South Carolina, contains important lessons for physicians, especially as it relates to (1) compensation arrangements with hospitals, (2) proper compensation arising in connection with the provision of designated health services (“DHS”), and (3) the advice of counsel defense.
The concept of DHS arises largely in the context of the federal Stark Law, which in pertinent part (1) forbids physicians from owning and referring to providers of DHS (e.g. PT, rehab, diagnostic imaging, home health, DME, clinical laboratory, inpatient and outpatient hospital services), (2) describes how medical practices can provide DHS to their own patients, and (3) forbids even physicians within a practice from allocating DHS profits on the basis of who ordered or referred to them.
The Tuomey case involves a whistleblower action filed against a not for profit hospital system. The original jury in that case decided that the system didn’t violate the False Claims Act, but the appellate court set aside the verdict using facts and testimony that had be excluded from the jury trial, Tuomey Healthcare System was found to have knowingly submitted over 21,000 false claims to Medicare and the government was awarded over $237 Million (most of it in the form of punitive damages). The government (which often advances the plaintiff’s—“relator” case in whistleblower cases) filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court granted and the appellate court affirmed.
The beginning of a new year is a great time to evaluate your medical practice and determine ways to protect its healthy growth for the future. The time, effort and dedication that it may take to build a successful practice may be quickly undermined without certain contractual protections in place. As you seek to establish or expand your practice, it is essential to protect your hard earned efforts from employees and consultants taking a portion of your patient base, employees and valuable proprietary business processes to compete against you.
One of the ways physicians seek to protect the investment that they have made in their practice is through the use of restrictive covenants. Restrictive covenant is an all-inclusive term used to refer to all contractual restrictions upon competitive practices; nonsolicitation; confidential information and use of trade practices. Restrictive covenants may be found in a number of documents related to your practice. A restrictive covenant may be found in your practice governing documents, such as the shareholder agreement, the partnership agreement of a partnership or the operating agreement of a limited liability company. A restrictive covenant is often included in an employment contract where it prevents an employee from engaging in certain competitive practices while they are an employee and for a period of time after their employment ends. There may be a restrictive covenant provision in a contract for the sale of a party’s interest in the practice.
Health law is the federal, state, and local law, rules, regulations and other jurisprudence among providers, payers and vendors to the healthcare industry and its patient and delivery of health care services; all with an emphasis on operations, regulatory and transactional legal issues.