Pennsylvania Attorneys and their Disciplinary Process

My licensure defense practice includes representing attorneys facing disciplinary process in Pennsylvania. Attorneys licensed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court – whether practicing in Pennsylvania or not – are subject to discipline the same as other Pennsylvania licensees. Criminal conduct and egregious unethical conduct expose attorneys to prosecution for violating the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Attorney discipline in Pennsylvania’s attorney regulatory system is more complex that other licensees. The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the court in the Supreme Court in which disciplinary actions are filed. The Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct govern the practice of law in the Commonwealth. These Rules set forth the minimum ethical standards for the practice of law and constitute a set of Rules that all attorneys must follow. These Rules were originally promulgated by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on April 1, 1988.

The Pennsylvania Rules of Disciplinary Enforcement is the administrative process through which Supreme Court disciplinary actions are filed, hearings, held and appeals prosecuted. These Rules establish the attorney disciplinary system in Pennsylvania and set forth a broad set of procedural Rules governing attorney discipline. These rules were originally adopted by the Supreme Court in November 1972.

Disciplinary Board Rules and Procedures supplement and implement the Rules of Disciplinary Enforcement, and govern proceedings before the Disciplinary Board. These Rules are promulgated by the Disciplinary Board. This is the main difference between attorney disciplinary matters and other licensed professionals. Where the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (BPOA) handles all other licensee discipline, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court supervises and disciplines attorneys.

Almost all other aspects of attorney disciplinary matters are similar to that of other licensees. The supreme court issues orders of prosecution to which attorneys must respond to the Prothonotary with all official filings. Disciplinary board council must be copied on all pleadings filed with the court.

Criminal convictions, not arrests, trigger Supreme court investigations and disciplinary action. Routinely Board prosecutors emergently file Orders to Show Cause to suspend attorneys license to practice law. There are much shorter time periods for attorneys to respond to disciplinary filings.

Orders to show cause why in attorney’s license should not be suspended for a criminal conviction in either of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, federal court, or any other jurisdiction must be immediately addressed. Lack of extra jurisdiction disciplinary prosecutions will not forestall the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from commencing it’s own independent disciplinary action.

Learning about and cooperating with prosecutors from the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board is important. Typically these attorneys are former prosecutors and, as attorneys themselves, seek to protect the profession from attorneys who engage in unethical and illegal conduct.
Theft of client funds and improper use of attorney trust account money will always trigger emergent prosecutions. Impairment prosecutions against attorneys caught using drugs, driving under the influence, or even showing up in court impaired are real, frequent, and as rampant as other professionals. Attorneys also suffer from mental health issues, diagnosed or not, that may begin to greatly affect their practice, bleed over into their practice of law. Untreated mental health issues, illnesses, drug abuse, or alcoholism always translate into client complaints.

If you are an attorney in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania please call me to discuss your potential or pending attorney disciplinary action.

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Disorderly Conduct — Moral Turpitude — Commonwealth Court Decides

Today the Commonwealth Court issues another remarkable decision involving a Pennsylvania medical professional.  Dunagan v. BPOA, 2019 WL 155879, is the third case in a row in which a Commonwealth Court panel has found a Pennsylvania medical related board engaged in an erroneous interpretation of the law and abuses its discretion.
In 2015, Dunagan was arrested and charged with three Drug Act violations and one Disorderly Conduct offense.  The charges stem from a police investigation that revealed Dunagan possessed a small amount of drugs and drug contraband.  The Disorderly Conduct offense is based upon Dunagan’s behavior during the search warrant execution. Dunagan’s criminal defense attorney negotiated dismissal of the Drug Act offenses and a guilty plea to the Disorderly Conduct offense.  This is a great legal tactic.  A medical professional who pleads guilty to a Drug Act violation is subject to an automatic one year license suspension and forced PHMP/DMU enrollment.  Dunagan’s plea avoided this result.

 

Dunagan properly reported her arrest to the BPOA.  Observing Drug Act offenses, a Nursing Board prosecutor filed an Order to Show seeking discipline Dunagan for her misdemeanor Disorderly Conduct guilty plea.  Ordinarily, Disorderly Conduct – charged either as summary offense or a misdemeanor –  is not a trigger for disciplinary action.  However, the Board prosecutor, with the support of his supervisors as a policy decision, subversively sought to discipline Dunagan for her drug related criminal conduct – not really the Disorderly Conduct offense to which she plead guilty.  This is outrageous.
Before the hearing examiner and Nursing Board, the prosecutor argues discipline should be based all facts of the criminal charges, not just the Disorderly Conduct behavior.  This is more facts than those essential elements of the Disorderly Conduct offense.  The prosecutor also maintains the facts giving rise to Dunagan’s guilty plea constitutes “a crime of moral turpitude” to which the Board may exercise its discretion and discipline Dunagan as it wishes.

 

The Hearing Examiner, rejecting this position, rules Disorderly Conduct is not a crime of moral turpitude and dismisses the Order to Show Cause.  The Board rejects the Hearing Officer’s Proposed Adjudication, finding Dunagan’s tumultuous behavior in the execution of a search warrant is a crime of moral turpitude.  The Board suspends Dunagan’s license for six months.

 

Obviously the decision is based upon the drug offenses that were dismissed and to which the Board could NOT force Dungan into the DMU/PHMP or automatically suspend her license under the Drug Act and CHIRA.
Dunagan appeals.  The Commonwealth Court reverses the Nursing Board decision.   The appellate court reviews much case law and facts and concludes Dunagan’s conduct resulting in a Disorderly Conduct guilty plea cannot and does not constitute moral turpitude.  The Court states

 

“A determination of whether a crime involves moral turpitude will be determined based solely upon the elements of the crime. The underlying facts or details of an individual criminal charge, indictment or conviction are not relevant to the issue of moral turpitude.” 22 Pa. Code § 237.9(b); see also Startzel v. Department of Education, 562 A.2d 1005, 1007 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1989) (“Determination of whether a crime involves moral turpitude turns on the elements of the crime, not on an independent examination of the details of the behavior underlying the crime.”).

 

The Court rules a six month professional license suspension is 1) an abuse of discretion, 2) a guilty plea to a Disorderly Conduct offense is neither a crime of moral turpitude nor a basis to suspend or revoke a professional licensees license, and 3) citing her need to earn a living and work – that the case facts are not health related  — there is no justifiable necessity to protect the public from her conduct.
This case reveals the extreme prosecutorial environment in which all Pennsylvania licensees now practice. Medical marijuana is the prime influencer of this case. Many Drug Act possessory offenses result in either original charges of Disorderly Conduct or evolve into a guilty plea to a Disorderly Conduct offense. A summary Disorderly Conduct offense is not a conviction under the Drug Act. As a result, Pennsylvania’s health related boards are not able to automatically suspend a license or commence disciplinary process predicated on a drug possessory offense.

 

BPOA prosecutors tried to secure Commonwealth Court case law stating a summary offense, whether a crime of moral turpitude or not, is a valid discretionary basis to suspend and discipline a medical related board licensees license.  The Commonwealth Court said no.
More importantly, at the Board hearing the attorney did not properly protect the record. I have written that factual allegations contained in an Order to Show Cause can only be those related to the criminal convicted charges, not allegations that are dropped or dismissed. Facts related to  dismissed, withdrawn, or not guilty charges are not relevant or admissible in any disciplinary prosecution.
This attorney did not object to a whole set of irrelevant and inadmissible facts.  Or the licensee simply testified about everything that happened on the date and time of her arrest. This placed those facts in the record for the Nursing Board to consider. It did consider the entire case facts, knew the case was about drugs, and suspended her license.  Both the legal strategy and Board conduct was improper. Call me to discuss your case.

Disclosing a Criminal Conviction on a Licensure Application — Part 2

In my last blog I wrote about real estate applicant who failed to disclose on his Real Estate Commission application a criminal conviction. Upon discovery the Commission revoked his license and the Commonwealth Court approved of the action. Today’s blog involves the exact opposite result for one of my physician clients.

On October 14, 2014 Dr. Christopher Elder, a Texas licensed physician, submitted an application to Pennsylvania’s Medical Board for a license to practice medicine and surgery. Unlike Hawes, Elder disclosed a 2010 federal conviction for aiding in abetting and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 846. On April 2, 2015 the Pennsylvania Medical Board provisionally denied Elder’s application. The Board maintained the Criminal History Record Information Act, 18 Pa. C.S. § 9124(c)(1) (CHIRA), authorized licensure denial because of Elder’s felony conviction. The Board also denied licensure, maintaining Elder lacked good moral character and did not possess the requisite training and experience.

Elder appealed the conditional denial of licensure. At the hearing before a the Hearing Officer Elder presented his credentials, training and experience, the facts of the criminal case, and character evidence. Consistent with prior Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent, Elder maintained the criminal conviction was too remote for the Board to determine such affected his current ability to do his job lawfully. Elder’s mitigating evidence established his minor role in the criminal case and his rehabilitation since release from prison.

The Hearing Officer weighed Elder’s witness’ credibility and Elder’s mitigating evidence. He ruled in Elder’s favor, stating that while Elder’s criminal conduct demonstrated moral turpitude at the time of its commission, Elder presented persuasive evidence of his rehabilitation and present moral fitness to practice medicine. A period of probation was required to allow Elder the ability to secure appropriate supplemental educational classes for competency.

The Medical Board rejected the Hearing Officer’s proposed adjudication. The Board determined Elder’s explanation of his crime displayed a lack of remorse and acceptance of responsibility, that Elder still lacked the moral turpitude to be a doctor in Pennsylvania, and lacked the educational qualifications. Elder appealed, maintaining the Board’s decision was arbitrary and capricious in light of the competent, uncontested character evidence and age of the criminal act.

Commonwealth Court agreed with Elder. For the second time in as many months, the Court took a Pennsylvania licensing board out to the wood shed and gave it a stern whipping. The Court emphasized that Boards must look at the age of the crime as it related to current fitness. Remote, past dereliction, must be considered where an agency seeks to revoke a professional license on the basis of a criminal conviction. Secretary of Revenue v. John’s Vending Corporation, 453 Pa. 488, 309 A.2d 358 (1973).

The Court explained that “where the prior convictions do not in anyway reflect upon the [applicant’s] present ability to properly discharge the responsibilities required by the position, we hold that the convictions cannot provide a basis for the revocation of a … license.”

For Elder I determined he must present a clear explanation of the criminal enterprise accompanied by extensive mitigating evidence. The Board was dismissive of Elder’s mitigating evidence, stating that “[r]ather than to take responsibility and express remorse for his criminal misconduct during his testimony, [Elder] attempted to minimize his role.” Elder responded that such did not minimize his criminal conduct but explained his role in the underlying conspiracy, which the Board misconstrued as a collateral attack on his conviction. Elder directs the Court to Nguyen v. Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, State Board of Cosmetology, 53 A.3d 100 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012).

The Commonwealth Court reviewed the entire record, the Federal Court sentencing transcript, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, and each witness’ testimony of Elder’s character and rehabilitation. The Court emphatically states:

The record does not support the Board’s assertion that Elder failed to express remorse or to take responsibility for his criminal conduct. At the hearing, Elder stated that he was “really” and “deeply” remorseful and he “absolutely accept[s]” responsibility.” He presented witnesses to attest to his remorse. The Board did not explain how this testimony was inadequate or what else Elder could have said. Elder’s attempt to place his criminal conduct into context and explain his role in the conspiracy does not demonstrate a lack of remorse or rehabilitation, as the Board presumed. The Board simply made a subjective determination that was contrary to that of the Hearing Examiner, who directly observed Elder and his witnesses, and accepted his evidence on remorse.

We hold that the Board erred and abused its discretion in reaching the conclusion that Elder does not have the present moral character required for a license. Elder’s crimes were committed over 14 years ago and were isolated to a single episode in his life. He has served his sentence. The Board erred by categorizing Elder’s evidence as not accepting responsibility when he was simply explaining his role in the conspiracy. The Board’s conclusion on Elder’s moral character cannot be reconciled with John’s Vending, 453 Pa. 488, 309 A.2d 358, or Nguyen, 53 A.3d 100. It did not take into account its own findings that Elder’s conduct since 2004 has been not only free of criminal conduct but dedicated to significant volunteer and public service activities.

In reversing the Board and instructing it to grant licensure, the Commonwealth Court determined the Medical Board sanction was a “manifest and flagrant abuse of discretion and purely an arbitrary execution of the agency’s duties or functions.” This is an amazing Commonwealth Court conclusion. Elder disclosed his federal criminal conviction for conspiracy to illegally distribute drugs. Elder set forth his long road to redemption, of rehabilitation, and his true character. The Court, a court of law, not the quasi-legal self-protecting Medical Board, looked at the facts – which mattered — and granted licensure.

Long hard preparation of this case won the day. My methodical approach to making a clear record of personal character recovery, redemption, and rehabilitation, could not be ignored. This cases reveals that proper presentation, preservation of the record, and coordination of witness is paramount to success. Call me to discuss your case.

Professional License Applications – Convictions – The Cover Up is Worse than the Crime

Professional license applications require potential licensees disclose prior criminal convictions or open criminal cases. Current licensees seeking an additional license must also answer these questions. This self reporting obligations establishes a base level of honesty, ethics, and moral turpitude Pennsylvania’s licensing boards expect from their licensees.

Board investigations of licensee’s criminal record (disclosed or not) takes time.  In May 2013 Bryan Hawks applied for a real estate sales person license. He stated he did not have a criminal record. However, in April 2004 Hawes plead guilty in federal court to two counts of mail fraud.  He was sentenced to jail and supervised release.
In 2017 Hawes’ false answer on the Real Estate Commission application was discovered. Real Estate Commission prosecutors filed an Order to Show Cause for discipline, a hearing took place, and on May 11, 2018 the the Commission revoked Hawes’ license concluding it was secured by fraud and deceit.  Hawes appealed to the Commonwealth court, claiming the Commission abused its discretion. Haws claimed the documents upon which the Real Estate Commission relied were not competent evidence.  Hawes produced a Pennsylvania State Police criminal background check showing no criminal record.
The Commonwealth court rejects Haws’ contention, determining Hawes’ $2 million dollars of fraud related restitution precluded Hawes from a reasonable basis to believe he did not possess a prior criminal record. Hawes’ obligation to truthfully and honestly answer the application’s criminal history inquiry is paramount to his fitness to hold the license. The Court explicitly emphasizes a conviction for federal mail fraud disqualifies Hawes from receiving a real estate license. The Court affirms the Real Estate Commission’s obligation of protecting the public and the integrity of the profession.
The court also concludes a federal criminal conviction obviously is a conviction subject to disclosure and Hawes’ failure to disclose such is knowing, intentional, and a fraudulent violation of section 604A of the Real Estate Commission Act.   The Act, 63 P.S. § 455.522(a), requires an potential realtors to include such information of the applicant as the Commission shall require. Truthful and complete responses in conjunction with an applicant swearing that the information is true and complete allows for license revocation based upon an applicant’s failure to disclose facts relevant towards consideration of his license.
As with all disciplinary actions, Hawes presented mitigation evidence regarding the performance of his duties as a realtor. Mitigation evidence included no complaints regarding his conduct as a licensee, his reputation in the community for being honest and trustworthy, and that he did not act in bad faith or with dishonesty in connection with any real estate license transaction.
Commonwealth Court rejected this mitigation evidence and affirms the Real Estate Commission’s decision because Hawes obtained his license by failing to disclose his prior felony conviction. Haws failure to disclose a felony conviction is a very serious offense,  akin to acting with dishonesty and a lack of moral turpitude. Hawes took away the Commission’s opportunity to protect the public and examine whether Hawes would have received a license in the first place.  Because Hawes’ omission in disclosing his federal felony conviction and jail sentence constituted a false representation of which could not reasonably believe as true, the evidence before the Real Estate Commission was appropriate and the Commission acted within the scope of its authority under the enabling rules and statutes.
The moral of this case is quite simple. Be truthful honest and provide full and complete disclosure of any prior criminal convictions or pending criminal cases on every license application. Failure to do so will result in the license revocation upon discovery by any licensing board. Please call to discuss your license application and proper disclosure and explanation of any prior criminal offenses.
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