Grey’s Anatomy Takes On The Law, And The Law Wins

| Jason M. Knott

Many people love the ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.  I’m not one of them.  Maybe it’s because I generally dislike any show in which a character is assaulted by an icicle.

Recently, however, the show featured an issue that is near and dear to the hearts of those of us who focus on executive-employer disputes: non-compete agreements.  The episode in question involved a plotline in which the lead characters were planning to buy their own hospital.  They concluded that they couldn’t tell one of their colleagues about the plan, because he had a non-compete/non-disclosure agreement with a competing buyer, and he could end up in jail if he breached that agreement.  Did the show get this right?

Initially, the idea seems ludicrous.  A breach of a contract between private parties is not a crime, no matter how dramatic it might be to make it seem like one.  However, Grey’s may not have been totally off base -- there are cases in which an employee’s breach of a non-compete has led to jail time.  But that can only happen based on one critical word that was missing from the Grey’s scenario: contempt.

Contempt does not mean breaching the contract with a haughty attitude.  It means violating a court order.  Thus, if an employer sues and obtains a court order requiring an employee to comply with a non-compete agreement, and if the employee then ignores the order, then, and only then, can the employee be jailed for his actions.  For example, a dance instructor in Dallas was jailed in 2008 because he violated a court order that barred him from teaching within 25 miles of his former dance studio.

So maybe Grey’s wasn’t totally wrong, but since its storyline doesn’t appear to have involved the contempt angle, it’s hard to give it much credit.