By Christine Sexton / News Service of Florida
A federal judge has declined to halt a new state law sparked by a bitter feud between one of Florida’s largest cancer-care companies and physicians who used to work for the firm.
But while Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker turned down an emergency request to block the law, he has agreed to fast-track the lawsuit filed last week by 21st Century Oncology against the state.
Walker issued a six-page order Sunday that turned down a request for a temporary restraining order. But he raised questions about the measure passed this spring by the Legislature and signed into law last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Part of the law retroactively negates no-compete clauses in contracts 21st Century Oncology had with a group of doctors. While the case moves forward, Walker warned that anyone who takes action based on the measure is doing it "at his or her own peril."
“The issue before the court is not whether this law is a good one or a bad one. Instead the issue is whether the law can survive a constitutional challenge,” Walker wrote.
21st Century Oncology had asked for the temporary restraining order to prevent the state from enforcing the law.
The law retroactively bans no-compete clauses for doctors who practice a medical specialty in a county where one company contracts with all the physicians who practice in that specialty.
The law bans such restrictions for three years after a second company comes into the county and starts providing the care. 21st Century Oncology is the largest provider of radiation oncology services in Florida, including in Lee County, where it is the only company providing the services.
Attorneys say the company signed nine physician contracts in Lee County that include the restrictions. Those contracts were with four current employee-physicians and five former employee-physicians.
In its motion for a temporary restraining order, 21st Century Oncology argued, in part, that the law runs afoul of federal and state protections against impairment of contracts.
But Walker also pointed to the state’s “police powers over the health and safety of its citizens.”
Walker wrote that “this court at this juncture cannot conclude that (the law) --- however obnoxious it may be --- fails to pass constitutional muster.”
21st Century Oncology also alleges the ban appeared to be aimed specifically at the company. Walker said “at this early stage of the proceedings” he was not convinced that the argument would lead to success on a claim of violating equal-protection rights.
But he acknowledged it was a “troubling aspect” and that at “first blush,” it appeared the law was passed “for the sole benefit of a few doctors to avoid obligations of contracts into which they willingly entered and from which they financially gained.”
Walker described granting a temporary restraining order as an “extraordinary remedy.” In denying the request for a restraining order, he said he would move forward with the case on an “expedited schedule.”