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Noncompete agreements forced Drs. Myron Wasiuta (left), Bradley Church and Sandra Grossett to work in Culpeper.
Drs. Sandra Grossett, Bradley Church (center) and Myron Wasiuta now run an optometry practice in Culpeper because of the noncompete clause in the job contracts they signed with their former clinic in Spotsylvania. Many of their local patients didn't know where they had gone.
BY JIM HALL
Dr. Myron Wasiuta and Dr. Bradley Church have been busy at their new optometry practice in Culpeper. Yet they're eager to return home.
"I am counting the months when we can finally get back to Fredericksburg," Wasiuta said.
The two and their colleague, Dr. Sandra Grossett, are serving what amounts to a self-imposed exile because of the noncompete clause in the employment contracts they signed with their former clinic.
For years, the three optometrists worked at Access Eye Centers, one of the largest eye clinics in the region.
But in 2009 they resigned, and because of the restrictions in their contracts, opened a new business, not in Fredericksburg but in a strip shopping center outside Culpeper.
Their contract restrictions last for three years and extend for 30 miles around Fredericksburg. Culpeper is within the 30-mile forbidden zone but is a permitted area.
Noncompete clauses are common in many industries, including medicine. Employers insist on them to protect their business practices and to temporarily prevent former employees from joining rivals or starting competing businesses.
Yet patients too are affected when there's a noncompete. In this case, patients of the three optometrists suddenly discovered that they were gone, and they had no idea what had happened to them.
"Hearing the journey that patients were on before they found us has been interesting," Grossett said.
A LONG, STRANGE TRIP
The move to Culpeper was a change that the three optometrists could not have imagined when they first arrived in Fredericksburg.
Wasiuta joined Dr. William Coleman at Coleman Eye Associates on State Route 3 in 1991. Church joined the business in 1998. Grossett has practiced in the area since 1993.
Church and Wasiuta had handshake agreements with Coleman and were happy with the way he ran the practice. Over the years, they built a roster of loyal patients.
They were not bothered by Coleman's request, years later, that they sign employment contracts that included noncompete clauses.
Both men got pay raises and signed the new contracts. Both contracts contained the three-year, 30-mile restrictions.
"I naively did not get it reviewed by a lawyer," Wasiuta said.
Church said that even if he was bothered by the contract, there was little he could do about it.
"When you're coming out of school and carrying $100,000 worth of debt, you're trying to find a place that you can survive," he said.
Coleman sold the business to Dr. Arash Mansouri in 2005. Today it is one of six locations in Mansouri's Access Eye chain.
Wasiuta and Church signed new contracts with Mansouri, identical to the ones they had with Coleman. They never complained about the noncompete clause and worked for Access Eye for more than four years, Mansouri said.
Grossett signed her first contract with Mansouri in 2001 and a second one in 2006. Both contracts contained noncompete clauses.
When the three finally left Access Eye in 2009, they had several options:
They could fight the restrictions. However, a court challenge would cost at least $30,000, and there was no guarantee that they would prevail. In fact, courts generally uphold noncompetes if they are reasonable.
They could pay Mansouri to buy out of the clause. For Wasiuta, the buy-out price would have been $400,000.
"That was impossible, he said."
They could abide by the agreement and move, which is what they did.
But the move meant that patients, too, had to make a decision: Should they follow the three to Culpeper? Or should they switch to other optometrists?
At the time, Access Eye had five other optometrists at three locations. Throughout the region, there were probably 60 optometrists, Mansouri said.
Morton Jones, for example, a patient of Church's, decided to remain at Access. He began seeing another optometrist there, Dr. Christopher Testa.
"I would have preferred when Dr. Church was there to have him do it because he was a special person and treated you in a special way," Jones said. "But the distance was the factor."
Other patients wanted to stay with Grossett, Church or Wasiuta. But first they had to find them.
The optometrists' contract prohibited them from soliciting patients. They interpreted that to mean that they could not tell patients that they were leaving, nor could they hand out business cards or send patients a mailing.
"In many cases, we've had these patients in our care for a decade," Wasiuta said. "We knew for a fact that we would not be seeing them the next time they came in. It was frustrating and painful and sad."
When asked a direct question about whether he was leaving, Wasiuta said he replied, "I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
Once, near the end of his time at Access, a longtime patient asked if he was leaving.
Wasiuta did not answer the woman directly.
"Let me rephrase it," she said. "I heard that you are going to a town; is it west of Fredericksburg perhaps?"
Wasiuta nodded yes, and replied, "That's all I can say."
Sandy Koch, another longtime patient, said she heard about Wasiuta's move from others at the gym where she works out.
A schoolteacher in Spotsylvania County, she said she followed him to Culpeper to continue treatments for a chronic eye problem.
She estimates that she's been to Culpeper 10 times, though she said it's harder to get treatment there, compared with when Wasiuta was in Spotsylvania.
"I used to go after school if I needed to," she said.
Ron Roseillo said his wife, Keiko, showed up at Access Eye for an appointment with Wasiuta only to learn that she'd been assigned to another optometrist.
Keiko Roseillo was upset when she got home, her husband said. She had been seeing Wasiuta for 20 years and wanted to continue.
Ron Roseillo said he went to Access Eye to make another appointment for his wife. He said the office staff would not tell him what had happened to Wasiuta. He said his wife learned later from another patient that Wasiuta had gone to Culpeper.
"It was professional discourtesy, as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Roseillo said he now accompanies his wife to Culpeper for her regular checkups.
Mansouri said that when the optometrists left Access Eye they did not tell him where they were going. He also said he instructed his staff that when patients asked about the optometrists, they should be pleasant and forthcoming and reassure patients that their care would continue.
"Our expectation was to refer the patients to replacements," he said. "The clinic was there. The patients are Access Eye Centers patients, and we would take care of them."
NOW IN SECOND YEAR
When the optometrists opened their new business, called Total Eye, nearly 90 percent of their patients were from their Fredericksburg practice, Church said. Since then, they've attracted Culpeper residents, who now constitute about 30 percent of the practice.
Wasiuta said they plan to retain the Culpeper office when they move back to Fredericksburg.
"Fredericksburg is our home," he said. "It's where our kids go to school. I've lived there since 1991."
He said he would like to see a court ruling or new law make noncompete clauses more uniform.
"There's such a huge variability," he said.
But he and the others said they accept responsibility for what happened to them.
"We're all grown-ups," Grossett said. "We read the noncompete, and we signed it."
Added Wasiuta, "I made a tactical mistake, and I'm lying in the bed I made. It's my fault, nobody else's."
Jim Hall: 540/374-5433
In 2000, Mancini, a Fredericksburg pediatrician, challenged the noncompete clause in her employment contract with Pratt Medical Center.
The clause said that if she left Pratt, she could not practice within 25 miles of her Pratt office for one year.
Mancini resigned from Pratt and opened a Fredericksburg office. Pratt immediately challenged her. A Fredericksburg circuit judge ruled for the clinic, and Mancini closed her office.
Mancini moved to Southwest Virginia, where she practiced for a year. She then returned to the Fredericksburg area and still practices here.
"Optometry has its roots in glasses and contact lenses," he said. "We used to do that solely, and there are still a number
But today many optometrists are trained and licensed to
"Optometrists are the primary care physicians for ocular health," Grossett said.
Added Wasiuta: "We don't do surgery. That's the clear difference between optometrists and ophthalmologists. But what we do is a whole lot more than glasses and contacts."