Dr. Maeve O’Connor, formerly a partner in one of the nation’s largest allergy clinics, has won a key legal round in her quest to practice on her own.
Following a hearing in N.C. Business Court, Superior Court Judge Calvin Murphy ruled that O’Connor can continue to practice allergy and asthma care at her new south Charlotte office.
Carolina Asthma and Allergy Center, Mecklenburg County’s largest allergy clinic, sued O’Connor earlier this month, alleging she breached the terms of a noncompete clause in her contract when, after leaving the clinic, she opened a competing practice.
The allergy center asked the court for a preliminary injunction to prevent O’Connor from practicing allergy and asthma care at her new office.
In rejecting that request, Murphy wrote that the clinic has so far “failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits.” The clinic’s lawyers say they will appeal to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
O’Connor, former head of the Mecklenburg County Medical Society, has fought back against the center’s lawsuit with allegations that rampant clinical errors endangered patients – an assertion the clinic vigorously denies. O’Connor’s attorneys contend the center’s contract is unenforceable, partly because the center breached it by failing to provide the staff “reasonably necessary” for her to do her job.
Adam Ross, one of O’Connor’s lawyers, also argued at Thursday’s hearing that the contract’s noncompete clause was unenforceable because its language was overly broad and vague. He cited a dozen cases in which courts found noncompete clauses with similar language unenforceable under N.C. law.
Clinic: Errors are rare
Pat Kelly, one of the allergy center’s lawyers, disagreed.
“We believe the facts show Dr. O’Connor was clearly in violation of the (noncompete) covenant and that the covenant was reasonable and enforceable,” he said.
O’Connor has alleged that the center’s staff put patients in danger by, among other things, injecting them with the wrong medications, the wrong doses and, in one case, nothing but air.
One of 11 doctors at the practice, O’Connor said she pushed for years to correct problems at the center but eventually came to realize she had little power to improve things.
Dr. Gray Norris, the center’s president, has called O’Connor’s allegations of substandard care “utterly false.” He acknowledged in a court affidavit that occasional mistakes are unavoidable in a large practice; but the mistakes are rare, he said, and “are not systemic and are quickly addressed.”
“There’s clearly an agenda here to discredit the practice,” Kelly told Murphy.
The center has acknowledged that O’Connor is a respected doctor, but suggested that some patient complaints may have stemmed from her heavy caseload.
To help ensure patients got the attention they deserved, the clinic imposed a limit on the number of patients a doctor could see each day. But Norris said O’Connor often ignored the 28-patient-per-day limit.
“She had the reputation for cranking patients through,” Kelly told Murphy.
Demand for her services
O’Connor disputes that claim, saying she had no desire to see more than 28 patients a day.
Before leaving the center, O’Connor earned about $700,000 annually, but she objected to suggestions by clinic attorneys that money played a key role in her decisions. O’Connor expects to earn less than a third as much working on her own. The average salary for allergy doctors is about $225,000 a year.
O’Connor’s lawyers say she was one of the clinic’s most popular doctors.
She disputes that she had any desire to discredit the allergy center.
“I never wanted it to go this far,” she said Monday, during a break from work at her new practice: Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Relief of Charlotte. “I care for my former colleagues and the staff, and all the patients.”