May 2009 A federal appeals court ruled in favor of California’s eye doctors Thursday in their turf battle with opticians who sell eyeglasses, reviving state laws that ban eye exams from being performed in the same office space as optical companies such as LensCrafters
The main law bars glasses-sales outfits from leasing space to eye doctors, while allowing the doctors to sell eyewear in their own offices. A federal judge in Sacramento struck it down in December 2006, saying it was a protectionist measure sponsored by California optometrists to limit competition from out-of-state optical chains.
But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the law had more benign purposes: to protect California’s medically trained eye doctors from takeovers by large business interests, which the court said has happened in a number of Eastern states.
“We must give deference to the state’s choice to protect its citizens in this way,” Judge Procter Hug said in the 3-0 ruling.
Although the law allows eye doctors to offer patients “one-stop shopping” by selling eyeglasses, Hug said, chains such as LensCrafters have other sales advantages, including lower-cost purchasing and a wider variety of eyewear.
The court returned the case to U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento to decide whether the law’s damage to out-of-state businesses, which include most of the optical chains, outweighs its benefits.
If Karlton upholds the law, consumers will “receive the eye care and eyewear they need, and not just quickie eye exams and prescriptions for whatever is in stock or is the most profitable for the optical companies,” said Deputy Attorney General Linda Schneider, the state’s lawyer.
Tim Hart of the 2,800-member California Optometric Association, which represents about half the state’s eye doctors, said the law was intended to leave doctors free to make medical decisions without commercial pressure. He said some optical chains that lease offices to eye doctors have encouraged or required them to change the way they treat patients.
“Those decisions are best made by the optometrist,” Hart said. He said Karlton should reject the remaining claim of disproportionate harm to out-of-state optical companies because the law applies equally to all such companies.
Luca Biondolillo, spokesman for the parent company of LensCrafters, which took part in the suit, said the laws prohibiting eyewear sellers from making space available to eye doctors deprived consumers of “the ability to benefit from opticians’ business model.”
He said the ruling “does not have any immediate impact on our business,” which operates about 100 stores in California.
E-mail Bob Egelko at [email protected].
This article appeared on page B – 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle