Des Moines pathologists sue their partners in a battle over market share

A group of central Iowa pathologists are fighting over market share in the Des Moines area, with six of the doctors suing four of their current business partners.

Iowa Pathology Associates, or IPA, and six of its shareholder-pathologists are suing four of IPA’s other shareholder-pathologists in Polk County District Court. IPA, which is based in Des Moines, examines body tissue and fluids for diagnostic purposes, offering a full range of pathology services to medical providers throughout central Iowa.

The six IPA pathologists who filed the lawsuit allege their four colleagues are “flagrantly, rampantly and disloyally working against” IPA’s own interests by initiating plans to defect next month so they can launch a competing business of their own.

The six claim that their four partners — Drs. Jared Abbott, Renee Ellerbroek, Caitlin Halverson and Tiffani Milless — violated their employment agreements with IPA in 2021 when they “agreed among themselves in secret to form a competing laboratory, Goldfinch Laboratory.”

Since then, the lawsuit alleges, the four pathologists have tried to intercept IPA clients and lure them to the newly formed Goldfinch, which plans to begin operating in January.

As evidence of this intent, IPA alleges that the four have created a Facebook page that is following, or has “liked,” the Facebook pages of IPA clients, such as Central Iowa Dermatology, Greater Des Moines Dermatology, UnityPoint Health and others. Goldfinch is also alleged to have already poached one major IPA client, Iowa Dermatology Consultants, that in recent months referred 1,279 cases to IPA and generated several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of business.

IPA also claims that although Goldfinch has yet to begin doing business, the company’s new website already includes “testimonials” from customers that must either be false or were solicited from current IPA clients.

The testimonials read, “I know I can call the dermatopathologists at Goldfinch anytime night or day and get the help I need to care for my patients,” and, “The doctors at Goldfinch Laboratory treat every biopsy as if it were their own family member .”

IPA is suing the four pathologists for breach of contract, breach of the common law duty of loyalty, civil conspiracy and tortious interference. The company seeks a restraining order to temporarily prevent the four from taking any further steps to establish Goldfinch Laboratory; from soliciting IPA’s clients; from using IPA’s confidential information; and from encouraging IPA employees to join them at Goldfinch.

The four Goldfinch pathologists have yet to file a response to the lawsuit, but in correspondence with IPA that predates the filing of the lawsuit, their attorney, Paul Drey, noted last month that their contracts with IPA have a very limited non-compete clause.

According to Drey, the contracts specify only that the pathologists cannot compete with IPA during the term of their employment, or for two years after the termination of their contracts, “whichever is greater.” The four pathologists have all been with IPA for more than two years, Drey argued, and so the non-compete clause expires as soon as their contracts are terminated next month.

In that same letter, Drey warned IPA that “most” of the four pathologists chose to leave IPA due to some unspecified form of “unlawful discriminatory treatment” and the retaliation they faced for complaining about that discrimination.

“I think it is better if our clients do not need to take legal action with respect to these issues, but our clients will stand up for themselves, share the truthful reasons why they decided to leave the practice, and take legal action as appropriate, ” Drey told IPA.

A trial date in the case has yet to be scheduled.

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