Felony Convictions — Pennsylvania Drug Act Cases — Professional License Revocation, Suspension, and Reinstatementts

A series of recent cases have just been decided that address automatic suspensions and revocations of health care professional’s licenses (and thus the time period after which reinstatement is possible). These are very important decisions effecting every professional confronted with criminal charges, to what charges they should not plead guilty, and the collateral consequences of a felony conviction.

The first case was decided in 2014. That case is Packer v. Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, Department of State, State Board of Nursing, 99 A.3d 965 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014), petition for allowance of appeal denied, 109 A.3d 680 (Pa. 2015). The second case is McGrath v. Bureau of Prof’l & Occupational Affairs, 2016 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 367 (Commw. Ct. Aug. 24, 2016). McGrath reverses Packer, discussing more in depth the 1985 law that amended the Nursing Act to provide for automatic license suspensions and 10 year reinstatement periods based upon felony Drug Act convictions. The drug Act is found 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(1-32).

Only felony criminal charges under the Drug Act, 35 P.S. 780-113(a)(1-32), trigger these cases. If a professional is convicted of a felony under the Drug Act, Section 14 of the Nursing Act (the “Act”) becomes effective, thereby allowing the Board to institute an automatic license suspension and/or revocations.  Section 14 of the Act states the Board has the discretion to refuse, suspend, or revoke any license if the Nurse is, among other things, convicted of a Drug Act violation. Section 15 of the Law addresses the procedures for suspensions, revocations, and reinstatement of licenses following a hearing before the Board:

All suspensions and revocations shall be made only in accordance with the regulations of the Board, and only by majority vote of the members of the Board after a full and fair hearing before the Board. All actions of the Board shall be taken subject to the right of notice, hearing and adjudication, and the right of appeal therefrom . . . . The Board, by majority action and in accordance with its regulations, may reissue any license which has been suspended. If a license has been revoked, the Board can reissue a license only in accordance with section 15.2. (Emphasis added.)

Section 15.1(b) of the Law, however, which was added in 1985, mandates that the Board automatically suspend licenses under certain circumstances prior to a hearing. Of relevance to the circumstance now before the Court, Section 15.1(b) of the Law provides, in part:

(b) A license issued under this act shall automatically be suspended upon the legal commitment to an institution because of mental incompetency from any cause . . . , conviction of a felony under the [Drug Act,] or conviction of an offense under the laws of another jurisdiction, which, if committed in Pennsylvania, would be a felony under [the Drug Act]. . . . Automatic suspension under this subsection shall not be stayed pending any appeal of a conviction. Restoration of such license shall be made as hereinafter provided in the case of revocation or suspension of such license.(Emphasis added.)

Section 15.2 of the Law, which follows immediately after Section 15.1(b), provides:

Unless ordered to do so by Commonwealth Court or an appeal therefrom, the Board shall not reinstate the license of a person to practice nursing . . . which has been revoked. Any person whose license has been revoked may reapply for a license, after a period of at least five (5) years, but must meet all of the licensing qualifications of this act for the license applied for, to include the examination requirement, if he or she desires to practice at any time after such revocation.All suspensions and revocations shall be made only in accordance with the regulations of the Board, and only by majority vote of the members of the Board after a full and fair hearing before the Board. All actions of the Board shall be taken subject to the right of notice, hearing and adjudication, and the right of appeal therefrom . . . . The Board, by majority action and in accordance with its regulations, may reissue any license which has been suspended. If a license has been revoked, the Board can reissue a license only in accordance with section 15.2.

These cases typically involve nurses convicted of drug offenses or prescription fraud matter.  While in jail or out of a job, the Board prosecutors (through either annual renewal, self-reporting, or automatic fingerprint notification upon arrest) learn of the drug charges and file a Rule to Show Cause with the Board seeking an automatic suspension without prior notice to the licensee. I typically see the Motion and the Order of Suspension that allows the licensee to respond to the Petition after the Board issues the automatic suspension and issues with Order with a right to a hearing on limited basis.

The final Order of Suspension language is the issue in these cases.  The suspension order states the licensee is ineligible for reinstatement for a 10 year time period. The Packer and McGrath claim that because there are no administrative regulations addressing implementation of the new automatic suspension law that the Board did not have the authority to institute in effective a mandatory 10 year license suspension. More importantly, the nurses objected to the Board action instituting a 10 year mandatory suspension versus consent agreements that offered a reduced reinstatement time period to 3 years. After reviewing much of the arguments, the court in Packer, which affirmed that new interpretation stating:

The Law is structured in a manner that affords the Board discretion (through decision making or regulation) to suspend or revoke a license under certain circumstances (Section 14 of the Law) and removes discretion from the Board in other circumstances by mandating that the Board suspend a license if certain circumstances exist (Section 15.1(b) of the Law). It would appear that the General Assembly, in mandating license suspensions under Section 15.1(b) for certain drug convictions and legal commitments based on mental incompetency, viewed those circumstances to be sufficiently serious such that it removed from the Board its discretion not to suspend or revoke a license. In other words, the General Assembly viewed those circumstances to be so serious that suspension is mandatory and automatic. Given that the General Assembly took measures to remove discretion from the Board by legislating automatic suspension, it would seem unlikely that the General Assembly would then allow the Board to exercise discretion and lift an automatic suspension at any time. Rather, it is much more likely that the General Assembly contemplated that an automatic suspension would remain in effect for at least some minimal period of time, which is consistent with the Board’s interpretation of the Law.

However, in McGrath the entire Commonwealth Court reviews Packer and the legislative process, overruling Packer, stating:

Because we conclude that Packer’s punitive interpretation of the ambiguous statutory provisions of the Nursing Law violates the principle that ambiguities in penal statutes must be strictly construed against the government, Section 1928(b)(1) of the Statutory Construction Act of 1972 (Statutory Construction Act), 1 Pa. C.S. § 1928(b)(1); Richards v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, 20 A.3d 596, 600 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) (en banc) (discussing the common law rule of lenity), we overrule Packer. Therefore, we reverse the Board’s Order to the extent that it mandates a 10-year suspension of Ms. McGrath’s license and requires, based on Packer, Ms. McGrath to reapply for a new license under Section 6(c)(1) of the Nursing Law, rather than request reissuance of her suspended license pursuant to Section 15 of the Nursing Law, 63 P.S. §§ 216(c)(1), 225.

This effectively eliminates 7 years of an automatic suspension that became a revocation requiring 10 years prior to becoming eligible for reinstatement of a nursing license. This is huge.  Importantly, the court sets forth a statutory history of the Board’s apparent interpretation and use of its automatic license suspicion process as

Previously, the Board interpreted this statutory language as permitting it to consider each automatic license suspension on a case-by-case basis to determine the length of the suspension and to approve consent decrees setting forth the term of the suspension. Packer, 99 A.3d at 967, 970. The Board’s interpretation relied on Section 15, which gives the Board discretion in imposing and reviewing license suspensions under the Nursing Law. 63 P.S. § 225. However, in 2013, the Board changed its interpretation of these provisions without, as observed in Packer, engaging in either formal interpretation, i.e., promulgating regulations, or informal interpretation, i.e., issuing policy guidelines, regarding its new interpretation. Packer, 99 A.3d at 969-71. Rather, the Board “altered its application of the [Nursing] Law based upon a directive from its parent agency, the Department of State [(Department)], Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs [(Bureau)].” Id. at 970. According to the Board, “the [Bureau] made the determination that the language in all the acts with automatic suspension provisions authorized the boards to impose a year automatic suspension and that all healthcare providers should be treated equally.” Id. at 970 n.10 (internal quotation omitted). Thus, “until . . . the Bureau or the Department issued an unidentified directive in 2013 to all health profession boards” indicating that “the Board (and apparently prosecutors in the Bureau)” had to apply Sections 15.1 and 15.2 in a non-discretionary manner, the Board and the Bureau’s prosecutors interpreted the statutory language as authorizing the exercise of discretion in determining the length of a suspension issued pursuant to Section 15.1(b). Packer, 99 A.3d at 970.

After discussing the legal and legislative process the McGrath Court makes the following remarkable statement,

The impact of Packer on the individuals affected is to preclude them from engaging in their profession for 10 years before the Board has the authority to even review their requests to reissue their suspended licenses. It prevents the Board from exercising its discretion, as it does in all other suspensions, to determine whether the Commonwealth’s citizens will be harmed by the reinstatement of a particular nurse. Such a result prevents individuals from earning their livelihood during that time period, which is particularly important because, based on the ambiguousness of Section 15.1(b) and 15.2 of the Nursing Law, licensed individuals have no guidance regarding what actions result in what punishment under the Nursing Law. We believe that our continuing reliance on Packer, therefore, creates [35] a “great injustice or injury” to those individuals.

This is the first time I have read a court case worried about a convicted felon professional’s ability to secure employment. This Commonwealth Court decision is finally taking a step to curtailing the conservative legislature from stopping hard working professionals who secured a license from every practicing their profession again. The court does not state suspension or revocation of the license is improper. It does state, however, that these individuals should be allowed to try to get their licenses back sooner, through hard work, and become working members of society again.  The Board has the discretion and the legislature can not take that away from them.

This is a momentous decision pushing back the General Assembly from issuing mandates to Pennsylvania’s  licensing boards. The legislature has previously given the Boards extensive discretion in deciding cases. The courts have routinely enforced this discretionary authority. The en banc Commonwealth Court is now telling the legislature these mandatory pronouncements are unnecessary and constitute legislative overreach. As well, the Court is telling the legislature in these hard economic times, let the professionals go back to work.

The import of these cases can not be understated. First and foremost, have proper counsel in any criminal matter involving the Drug Act violation so that your professional license is able to be reinstated at the appropriate time. Thereafter, make sure you properly respond to all license disciplinary action petitions. The Boards attempt to unilaterally interpret its governing law and regulations is many times wrong. Appellate review is proper. Courts really do objectively look at the evidence below and the legal actions taken by the Board. These cases involved convicted felons who were professionals and they still won their case. Call me to discuss these important cases and their affect on you license.

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