The California Supreme Court has upheld an appeals court ruling which held that Pearle Vision Centers illegally provided eye examination services and sold eyeglassees and contact lenses from the same retail storefronts.
The ruling clears the way for a consumer protection lawsuit filed in 2002 by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer against Pearle Vision for alleged unlicensed practice of optometry, deceptive marketing and unfair business practices.
The complaint claims that Pearle Vision's advertising falsely promoted that the company provides optometric services, including eye exams, eye care, professional eye care advice and the services of optometrists.
Additionally, the complaint alleges the defendants falsely told consumers that the optometrists located in or near Pearle Vision retail outlets were independent. In fact, the optometrists are controlled and financially subsidized by Pearle Vision, according to the complaint.
"For decades Pearle Vision has flipped and twisted itself, trying to find a way through California law requiring economic independence between optometrists and those selling and dispensing lenses and frames," Lockyear said. "They thought they found a technical refuge but the court stripped away that shelter."
"Consumers have less protection when the firm selling eyewear also controls the doctor writing the prescription. Today's ruling upholds Californians' insistence that when it comes to their health, those with the credentials should make the decisions," Lockyer said.
California law prohibits financial relationships between optometrists and retail eyeglass sellers, and also bars retailers from advertising or providing the services of optometrists.
Pearle had set up a complicated structure that involved selling franchises to optometrists licensed in California. The California Association of Dispensing Opticians sued Pearle, arguing that the franchise program violated state law.
Pearle then shifted strategies, splitting its operations into two, with Pearle Viosion, Inc. selling eyeglasses and contacts and a separate company, Pearle VisionCare, employing optometrists to perform eye examinations.
But in its ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected Pearle's arguments, which it said violated California's prohibition against the corporate practice of medicine except by licensed health care institutions.
Pearle Vision operates about 850 stores throughout the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.