CHRIA – Expungements, Convictions, License Applications

The Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA) 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 9124 controls how public and private entities use Pennsylvania criminal arrest and conviction records. CHRIA controls how Pennsylvania’s licensing boards may use prior criminal convictions in application and disciplinary matters. CHRIA also governs Pennsylvania’s expungement process. CHRIA allows private lawsuits for illegal dissemination of expunged criminal histories. Two recent developments involving CHRIA are noteworthy.

On May 22, 2019 House Bill 1477 of 2019 was introduced in the Pennsylvania Generally Assembly. This bill seeks to amend section 9124(a) of CHRIA. The amendment seeks to limit Pennsylvania licensing board’s ability to refuse, grant, renew, suspend or revoke any license, certificate, registration, or permit based upon a criminal conviction that does not relate to the applicant’s suitability for such license. This is huge. No longer will a conviction be an automatic bar to licensure.

If a felony or misdemeanor conviction does relate to the trade, occupation or profession for which the license, certificate, registration or permit is sought, the applicant is now permitted to establish sufficient mitigation, rehabilitation, and fitness to perform the duties of the trade. This precludes any automatic application license rejection or disqualification.

The amendment, if adopted into law, will allow applicants to rebut any adverse presumption and show rehabilitation. The Boards must consider the criminal act, nature of the offense, age, maturity since the date of conviction, any prior criminal history, or lack thereof, length of current employment, participation in education and training, and other employment and character references. This clean slate provision allows for applicants with a criminal history record to petition the board for a preliminary decision of whether a prior criminal record would disqualify the individual from receiving the licensure.

On a separate front, on May 28, 2019 a federal jury determined damages against Bucks County for its 2011 online inmate look-up service. In 2016 a federal judge ruled the on-line service will illegal, violating the 2011 version of CHRIA. The jury verdict focused on the damages Bucks County’s CHRIA violation caused. Between 1998 and 2011 the on-line look up tool produced criminal histories of approximately 67,000 inmates. However, many of these inmate’s criminal cases were dismissed and expunged. The federal judge found that Bucks County was disseminating criminal histories of individuals whose criminal records were expunged. The jury awarded $1000 in damages to each inmate whose information was improperly disseminated on the website. The total jury award was $67 million.

This is an important case. It reflects a governmental body acting intentional and deliberate in violating Pennsylvania residents’ privacy rights. Bucks County was determined to be not following Pennsylvania law. Its conduct was determined to be willful and in reckless disregard and in different to the inmates’ privacy rights.

This case and the Clean Slate public policy prerogatives reflect the economic changes in the air. Economic equality starts with criminal expungements and privacy rights. Full and fair employment opportunities provide financial security and stabilize our community. When people are able to get jobs, secure professional licenses, and become more productive members of society, domestic violence is reduced, crime is reduced, drug use is reduced, self-worth is increased and family values and protection of our children is increased. Call to discuss your health care related license application.

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.

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.

Petitions to Suspend a Professional License While on Probation

A Petition for Appropriate Relief (“PAR”) is a licensing board prosecution motion, presented to a licensing board committee, alleging an emergent need to suspend a licensee’s license.  PARs target licensees currently on PHMP disciplinary probation, whether a voluntary agreements and involuntary, licensing board order.  This is the TRAP I reference throughout my website, blogs, and PNAP Trap articles.

Licensees placed in the disciplinary monitoring unit (“DMU”) or the Voluntary Recovery Program (“VRP”) administered by the Professional Health Monitoring Program (“PHMP”) are subject to extensive board orders imposing mandatory drug or alcohol abstinence.  The bait and switch of provision in every PHMP agreement is that for a licensee to maintain or be re-licensed they agree to automatic license suspension if they violate the terms and conditions of PHMP probation.
The Petition for Appropriate Relief or PAR is the prosecutor’s mechanism advising the board of licensees’ probationary order violations. Immediate license suspension is the initial board remedy.  Thereafter, in order to secure licensure reinstatement, a licensee must file an answer to the PAR within 20 days.  If the licensee does not seek a hearing or continue to honor the terms and conditions of the probation, their license will be indefinitely suspension.

It is through the PAR  that board prosecutors apply a heavy-handed approach to compelling compliance with PHMP’s drug abstinence programs.  In agreeing to the DMU, VRP agreement administered through the PHMP agreement, the licensee consents to this automatic suspension process. Each licensee waves a pre-suspension due process hearing.
PHMP, PNAP, and PHP caseworkers can raise any number of issues in a PAR.  I have extensively written about the overbearing trap into which these programs invite licensees.  PHMP uses the carrot and stick approach to licensees who seek reinstatement of or continuance of licensure.  Missed or failed drug test is the number 1 basis for a PAR filing.  PHMP case worker allegations of positive drug tests are routinely wrong, false, mixed up.
Unfortunately, PHMP cases workers claim improper violations two years after licensee’s participation in the programs. Prosecutors, tasked with keeping their jobs and honoring their clients’ (PHMP – through their respective Board)  demands, follow instruction and file PARs for any number of suspicious reasons. Unfortunately, the challenges to address a PAR while a license is suspended are very limited. Typically, extensions agreements or time periods within the programs is the only result that is accepted in order to secure license reinstatement.  Call me to discuss your case.

Pennsylvania’s Professional License Disciplinary Environment

The Professional Compliance Office within BPOA’s Legal Office, receives an average of 16,000 complaints per year. The office reviews these complaints to establish whether the complaint alleges conduct which is a violation of a practice act, whether a Board has jurisdiction, and whether there is sufficient evidence to merit further investigation. Complaints can be initiated by consumers, licensees, board or commission members, board or commission staff, competitor complaints, other state licensing boards, media information, and law enforcement.

When a complaint requires investigation, the Department’s Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation (BEI) interviews witnesses and obtains documents and collects evidence related to the allegation made in the complaint. Subsequently, a prosecuting attorney determines whether to close the complaint or to initiate a disciplinary action before the administrative licensing board.

Prosecution for violations of standards of practice are initiated through the filing of an Order to Show Cause.  The prosecutor who proceeds with the disciplinary action then bears the burden of proving misconduct before the board. Licensees are provided due process and the board adjudicates the case to either dismiss or sanction. Depending on the severity of the conduct proven, sanctions can range from probation and discretionary suspension, to revocation or automatic suspension as required by statute. Licensees have the right to appeal any sanctions to the Commonwealth Court for review.

Sanctions include: revocations, suspensions, stayed suspensions, voluntary surrenders, probations, reprimands, civil penalties. As of May 16, 2018, there had been 2,494 sanctions issued in fiscal year 2017-2018. This is the highest on record.  Nursing Board sanctions doubled between 2012 and 2018, from 436 to 840. Nursing Board actions account for 31% of all disciplinary cases.   Medical and Osteopathic Board sanctions remained the same at 190 and doubled from 27 to 46, respectively.  Pharmacy and Social Workers Board actions have both dropped by 50%.

Each board and commission is authorized to take disciplinary action based on the commission of a crime. Among these disciplinary actions taken:

• 29 % resulted in suspension;

• 17% resulted in stayed suspension (usually with probationary terms);

 

• 13.5% resulted in automatic suspension due to the Drug Act;

• 12.6% resulted in voluntary surrender of license;

• 12% resulted in revocation;

• 6.5% resulted in reprimands;

• 4.7% resulted in immediate temporary suspensions based on danger to health/safety of public;

• The remaining roughly 5% resulted in probation, a civil penalty (regular or Act 48), a stayed revocation, or other sanction such as remedial education, etc.

Call me to discuss your case.

Act 6 of 2018 — All Licensees Must Report Criminal or Disciplinary Charges with in 30 Days

Act 6 of 2018 is a new law in 2018. It represents a fundamental shift in Pennsylvania licensees’ duty to report criminal charges and disciplinary actions filed against them in any jurisdiction in the entire country. The General Assembly passed the new law in anticipation of medical marijuana. The enforcement environment is getting much stricter in Pennsylvania. Every Pennsylvania professional licensee must report the misdemeanor and felony criminal charges to their respective board within 30 days receipt of criminal charges. It is a disciplinary offense for any licensee to not report within 30 days of receipt of criminal charges.

Act 6 of 2018 specifically authorizes the The Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (“BPOA”) to subscribe to JNET. My prior blogs discuss JNET, the criminal reporting database network to which the Nursing Board began subscribing.   JNET now levels the reporting responsibility and Boards learning of its licensees’ criminal conduct.  There was a significant difference between nurses and doctors, pharmacist, realtors, cosmetologists, and funeral directors (and all others) in their criminal charge reporting responsibilities. All licensees are now treated equal. Licensees can not wait to report — thinking at a preliminary hearing charges will be reduced to a summary offense, for which there is a guilty plea. The charging is the reportable event, not the end result.

This all began in 2014.  In late 2014 the General Assembly modified Pennsylvania professional licensing regulations to require nurses to report criminal charges, not conviction, within 30 day days of charges being filing. The BPOA utilized the last several years to create a new enforcement infrastructure and mechanisms to insure disciplinary action is initiated against all nurses who either reported or they learned of criminal conduct or did not report at all.  The reporting responsibility is in addition to reporting criminal charges upon licensee renewal.

Through JNET the Nursing Board became familiar with the criminal reporting subscription service and its information power. Obviously the Board created a flow chart starting at receipt of criminal information through to disciplinary charge initiation for failure to report. The Nursing Board worked out the differences between JNET and nurse reporting of charges. Steps between failure to report, Board investigation, document review, and charges have also been ironed out.

Apparently BPOA had a significantly positive experience with JNET’s notification process, allowing it to better enforce nurses’ reporting responsibility. Expanding 30-day reporting of criminal activity to all other 25 licensing boards will inundate the BPOA with information regarding licensees’ criminal behavior.  This will produce some delays in failure to report and initiation of criminal charges.

The Act also gives the BPOA prosecutor not just the authority but the command to initiate within 30 days an emergent suspension if a licensee’s criminal acts reveal a clear and present danger to the public. The licensee is afforded a preliminary hearing to contest the automatic license suspension. This “automatic suspension process” is not new.

All licensees were spared the obligation to report summary Drug Act violations. By this I mean summary charges for disorderly conduct written by cops giving a break to licensees caught with illegal marijuana. This reporting requirement was in the original versions of the bill but stricken from the final version. The Act includes authority for every Board to institute a schedule of fines for escalating number of failure to report charges.

Act 6 includes a very limited right of expungement. This is only for disciplinary action for failure to comply with continued education requirements. The law explicitly precludes any expungement of any disciplinary order by any board for any other offense. Aside from capping Board fines to $10,000, BPOA can enter a judgment against the licensee if the fine is not paid in 5 years.

Call me to discuss your case.

Nurse, Doctors, and Intimate Relationships with Patients

Most health care related professional licensing schemes contain a uniform proscription against engaging in sexual intimacies with clients.  This sexual conduct bar does not depend on consensual or non-consensual acts.     Violating this conduct is the first and surest way to lose your professional license.  Prior relationships with current licensee and current relationships with former patients also creates huge problems.

The General Assembly, through the Pennsylvania Code defines  Sexual intimacies as romantic, sexually suggestive, sexually demeaning or erotic behavior. Examples of this behavior include the following:

  • (i) Sexual intercourse, or any touching of the sexual or intimate parts of the person for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire in either person.
  • (ii) Nontherapeutic verbal communication or inappropriate nonverbal communication of a sexual or romantic nature.
  • (iii) Sexual invitations.
  • (iv) Soliciting or accepting a date from a client/patient.
  • (v) Masturbating in the presence of a client/patient or encouraging a client/patient to masturbate in the presence of the licensed marriage and family therapist.
  • (vi) Indecent exposure, kissing, hugging, touching, physical contact or self-disclosure of a sexual or erotic nature.  49 Pa. Code § 48.1
Section 49 Pa. Code § 21.146a, is a catch-all Pennsylvania Code provision setting forth as a procedural matter, not even a substantive violation,  a rule stating:
  • (a)  The consent of the patient to any sexual impropriety or violation is not a defense to any disciplinary charge for violation of the act or this subchapter.
  • (b)  Evidence of specific instances, opinion evidence, or reputation evidence of a patient’s past sexual conduct is not admissible in proceedings brought under §  21.148(b)(9) (relating to standards of nursing conduct).  The Board may consider sexual relationships between the nurse and the patient occurring prior to the professional relationship.
  • (c)  A nurse who attempts to raise as a defense an argument that conduct prohibited as a sexual violation or sexual impropriety was necessary or appropriate to the treatment of a patient shall be required to demonstrate competency in practice which relates directly to the treatment of sexual function or dysfunction. This competence may be demonstrated through educational training and supervised clinical experience. Appropriate discussions of sexual matters between a nurse and a patient shall be fully documented in patient records.

Apparently this conduct is prevalent in the psychology, psychiatry, licensed marriage and family therapist, and LSW and professional counselor professions.  I say this because the language in each of these licensing regulatory schemes is exact, precise, and consistently repeated throughout.   The law is very clear about this topic: 49 Pa.Code § 47.61 states: Sexual intimacies between a licensed social worker or licensed clinical social worker and a current client/patient, or an immediate family member of a current client/patient, are prohibited.  More importantly, licensed social workers and licensed clinical social workers may not accept as client/patients individuals with whom they have engaged in sexual intimacies.  For how long you ask?  Sexual intimacies between a licensed social worker or licensed clinical social worker and a former client/patient, or an immediate family member of a former client/patient are prohibited for 7 years following the termination of the professional relationship.

images

Violation of these provision will warrant disciplinary action:

  • (a)  A violation of § §  47.61—47.63 (relating to prohibited conduct; former sexual partners as clients/patients; sexual intimacies with a former client/patient or an immediate family member of a former client/patient) will be deemed unprofessional conduct and will subject the licensed social worker or licensed clinical social worker to discipline under section 11(a)(2) of the act (63 P. S. §  1911(a)(2).
  • (b)   The consent of a former client/patient or immediate family member of a former client/patient to engage in sexual intimacies with the licensed social worker or licensed clinical social worker is not a defense in any disciplinary action brought under § §  47.61—47.63.

Pennsylvania does not recognize, along with all other states, that a mental health professional’s conduct in engaging in a sexual affair with a patient is actionable in tort (a medical malpractice action).  Thierfelder v. Wolfert, 617 Pa. 295, 327, 52 A.3d 1251, 1271 (2012).  However, our Commonwealth court routinely concludes the State Board of Medicine properly orders, and it is within their authority, that psychiatrist’s license to practice medicine be revoked on ground that he had engaged in sexual relations with his patients.  (“Revocation of psychiatrist’s license was reasonable sanction in light of his conduct.) Starr v. State Bd. of Med., 720 A.2d 183 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1998); Morris v. State Bd. of Psychology, 697 A.2d 1034 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1997).

medical-ethics-21-728

 

In these cases, the court concludes the Board of Medicine, and other boards, are entitled to deference in their determination of what constitutes “unprofessional conduct” as that term is used in Medical Practice Act (or their licensing schemes) section providing that practitioner may be disciplined for “unprofessional conduct.” 63 P.S. § 422.41(8).  As there is no per say rule of revocation, the regulatory language stated above in the counseling fields is overlapped by the Medical Practice Act.
There, sections 41(8) and (9) of the Medical Practices Act state that the Board shall have the authority to impose disciplinary or corrective measures on a board-regulated practitioner for

  • (8) Being guilty of immoral or unprofessional conduct. Unprofessional conduct shall include departure from or failing to conform to an ethical or quality standard of the profession. In proceedings based on this paragraph, actual injury to a patient need not be established.
    • (i) The ethical standards of a profession are those ethical tenets which are embraced by the professional community in this Commonwealth.
    • (ii) A practitioner departs from, or fails to conform to, a quality standard of the profession when the practitioner provides a medical service at a level beneath the accepted standard of care. The board may promulgate regulations which define the accepted standard of care. In the event the board has not promulgated an applicable regulation, the accepted standard of care for a practitioner is that which would be normally exercised by the average professional of the same kind in this Commonwealth under the circumstances, including locality and whether the practitioner is or purports to be a specialist in the area.
  • (9) Acting in such manner as to present an immediate and clear danger to public health or safety.  63 P.S. § 422.41 (8) and (9).

The Boards and the courts consistently determine that having sexual intimacies with clients breaches ethical standards, standards of care, and constitutes immoral or unprofessional conduct.   “Unprofessional conduct” includes “those breaches of trust, confidence and reliance, necessarily attendant upon the intimate relationship of physician and patient, which amount to gross abuses of the standards of professional conduct generally recognized as essential to the proper practice of medicine and surgery.”  As well, the specific regulations above clearly state that it is of no consequence that intimacies occur either before or after a terminated client relationship.  Importantly,

the professional who, during course of therapeutic relationship, engages in sexual intimacies with client may not absolve himself or herself from professional liability by ceasing to provide therapy while sexual relationship continues, or billing for services and masquerading the sex as a therapy. 49 Pa. Code § 41.61. Giddings v. State Bd. of Psychology, 669 A.2d 431 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1995).
Call me to discuss your legal issues.
 

 

Alcohol Use Disorder and Self-Help Remedies — Licensees Be Careful

My blog topics sometimes originate from media outlets  discussing issues that impact my professional clients. NPR published an article this week discussing a new National Institute of Health (“NIH”) alcohol use disorder online self- help tool.  The attached link presents a significant web presence on alcohol consumption, alcohol use disorders, and other NIH discussion pieces on a national alcohol abuse epidemic. NPR, NIH Alcohol Use Disorder Article

The website reveals a national problem with alcohol consumption and provides a means for self diagnosis of one’s alcohol use disorder (“AUD”) through a DSM questionnaire.  In prior blogs I discuss the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”) as the tool mental health professionals utilize to diagnose mental health conditions.  An Alcohol Use Disorder is one such identified mental health disease.  The DSM-V, the latest and current version, identifies any person meeting two of the following 11 criteria during a 12 month period as suffering from an alcohol use disorder.

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?

As an an attorney representing medical or other licensed professionals possibly suffering from AUD, or other DSM-V criteria disorders, you’re wondering why I’m writing this blog.  The NIH web page, marketing campaign, and DSM assessment tool are very helpful for life correcting and treatment of a medical condition.

However,  licensed professionals should not seek treatment as a result of a self-help assessment in an on-line article, not conducted by a professional.  Such an endeavor could create significant potential professional license exposure. Obviously your health is a paramount concern.  Seek help if you need it.  But before doing so, understand there could be significant legal and professional ramifications.

Licensed professionals who self diagnose themselves and then seek drug and alcohol treatment through any number or type of treatment facilities opens a Pandora’s box of medical records and mental health disclosure issues and potential employment and license reporting responsibilities.   The wrong treatment facility could seek employment related information. Thereafter, under various state and federal regulations, these drug or alcohol treatment facilities (whom the licensee sought for help and stress reduction) become mandatory reporters to state professional licensing boards – causing huge stress. This creates the scenario where someone seeks inpatient treatment and the treatment provider reports a person’s drug or alcohol use to their professional licensing board. This exposes the professional licensee to a disciplinary process.

Self disclosure to any drug or alcohol treatment facility becomes a medical record subject to mandatory disclosure to a licensing board if a petition for a Mental and Physical Evaluation is ordered. By this I mean, once a treating facility reports a licensed professional as suffering from a drug or alcohol use disorder (without any type of criminal or workplace related event), the licensee’s words become the basis for disciplinary action.  Petitions to Compel Mental and Physical Evaluations require disclosure of the medical records from the self-help treatment facility.  The licensee’s words become the proverbial nail in the coffin of any disciplinary action.

images

Before you proceed through an NIH or other self-help drug and alcohol use disorder assessment and then contact an inpatient treatment provider (which really just wants your money) please call to discuss the legal ramifications of your need for medical care. While your health and welfare are paramount, take into consideration the broader range of factors, including the status of your ability to work, maintain gainful employment, and practice your profession.  If your life is already full or stress (from family, marriage, work,  finances, and life), causing professional downfall, legal fees, or disciplinary action will just add to the current stress level. Eliminating additional stress is a huge factor in maintaining sobriety, maintaining confidence, and psychological stability.

PHMP versus RAMP: A Big Difference

I write blogs about Pennsylvania professional licensing legal developments.  I am also licensed to practice law in New Jersey. I routinely counsel Pennsylvania professionals concerned about their NJ licenses.  There is a huge difference between Pennsylvania’s PHMP and New Jersey’s RAMP (“Recovery and Monitoring Program “).  RAMP was established in 2003 as an Alternative to Discipline program, managed by the Institute for Nursing for the New Jersey Board of Nursing. http://njsna.org/ramp/

Pennsylvania medical professionals who live in New Jersey or Pennsylvania residents also licensed in NJ, but only use their PA  licenses, are exposed to RAMP.  (Obviously also are NJ licensees working in NJ.)  Any Pennsylvania medical professional, who is also licensed in NJ – who receives Pennsylvania PHMP letter – must consider how RAMP will respond if Pennsylvania restricts their professional license.  Any Pennsylvania disciplinary action based upon an alleged impairment of alcohol and drugs will come to NJ’s RAMP attention. Also, NJ licensees must carefully respond to RAMP communications.

A recent NJ appellate case reveals just how different RAMP is from Pennsylvania’s PHMP.  On November 16, 2017 a New Jersey appellate court decided In The Matter of the license of Kevin Rafferty, RN.  He was a certified registered nurse anesthetist and an Advanced Practice Nurse.  Mr. McCafferty‘s licensing problems began in 2013 when three co-workers smelled alcohol on his breath during work.  They levied anonymous complaints to the Nursing Board, which contacted RAMP. This was the only evidence against him.

RAMP contacted  Rafferty via letter, setting forth the allegations that he may have problems related to mental health and or substance-abuse that could affect his ability to practice his profession.  RAMP offered him a private letter agreement and enrollment for a minimum of 90 days.  During this time RAMP requires random observed drug tests, monthly self evaluation reports, and regular attendance in peer support meetings.  Post-enrollment, RAMP then requires an initial intake evaluation.  In my experience this evaluation typically  finds the professional needs to be in RAMP for 12 months.  The 90-day initial RAMP invite is a fraud!

It is this context (which the McCaffrey case reveals)  that RAMP’s enrollment process is distinctly different from Pennsylvania’s PHMP.  RAMP’s initial letter of invite is not really an offer, but an order to each licensee.  PHMP’s initial “Letter of Concern” is a non-mandatory offer for help and does not constitute a demand to enroll.

RAMP’s initial 90-day evaluation period is not based upon a medical expert assessment or determination the licensee suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction that renders them an impaired professional. That assessment comes only after RAMP enrollment and signing of the RAMP 90-day contract.  The licensee is then stuck.

The RAMP evaluation takes place after enrollment, when the agreement sign requires compliance with the terms and condition of the program.  Licensee thinking they are just going to get the 90 days meet the expert, who determines more time in RAMP is required. Now they are stuck and can’t break the agreement.

PHMP’s letter of concern offers an assessment and voluntary disclosure to determine in an impairment exists.   PHMP requires either a finding of an impairment or a voluntary admission of such before enrollment in the program.  Pennsylvania Voluntary Recovery Program (“VRP”) questionnaire includes a provision that the licensee admit to suffering from an impairment.  This is the voluntary admission part of the VRP contract.  I counsel against signing this agreement.  NEVER ADMIT you are an impaired professional.Wait for the Board to file a formal petition to Compel and Mental and Physical Evaluation.  (See my other blogs.)

McCaffrey did not respond the the initial 90 day RAMP letter.  He was determined to be “non-compliant“ with RAMP.  RAMP notified the Nursing Board that “it could not insure the board or the public that McCaffrey was safe to practice.”  The Board subpoenaed McCaffrey to appear before a committee of the Board to answer questions about  appearing at work smelling of alcohol.  McCaffrey appeared, denied the allegations, and brought numerous letters of reference.  The Board still concluded he should enroll in RAMP and proposed a 2nd private letter agreement requiring McCaffery participate.  He refused.

The Board issued a provisional order of discipline compelling McCaffrey to submit to an evaluation and monitoring to determine whether his continued practice may jeopardize the safety and welfare of the public.  This is a distinct different legal standard and burden of proof compared to Pennsylvania’s impairment burden of proof.

NJ’s licensing boards and Courts have long recognized a “community care-taking responsibility” as legal justification that allows government license restriction.  The NJ Nursing Board thereafter issued a final order compelling McCaffrey to enroll in RAMP. The Board determined such was required to satisfy its “mandate to protect the public.” McCaffrey‘s failure to comply with this final order was reported to the national practitioner data Bank. Still no medical determination of any impairment!

McCaffery appealed claiming there was no medical or legal basis to compel RAMP and that absent such, a general order requiring such denied him due process of law.   The appellate court reviewed McCaffrey’s objections to the Board’s order. The appellate court determined the Board maintains oversight over professional licensing for nurses pursuant to the Nursing Law.  Because the New Jersey professional nursing law requires an applicant not be a “habitual user of drugs and alcohol”, McCaffrey‘s potential for alcohol and drug abuse rendered him suspect of meeting the legal requirements of both the Nursing Licensing and Nurse Anesthetist laws.  The court found the Board had the authority even absent a medical conclusion of any impairment.

McCaffrey complained that absent an expert determination that he was impaired or suffered from a chemical dependency, he met the requirements for licensure.  The Board rejected this argument. The court determined the Nursing Board was within its statutory authority based upon the factual allegations, even without even an expert evaluation, that the Board was within its authority to compel McCaffrey to participate in the 90 day private letter RAMP program.  The decision was handed down in 2017.  McCaffrey’s work place situation occurred in 2013.

For the many licenses that practice in Pennsylvania, these procedural differences between the PHMP and RAMP are significant and should be respected. Pennsylvania’s regulatory and statutory framework allow for licensee participation in and evaluation by a board chosen medical expert before mandatory enrollment in the PHMP.  NJ does not allow for this pre-enrollment evaluation, compels participation, and then subjects the licensee to a bait and switch disciplinary monitoring program.

Please call me to discuss either of these programs and any letters you receive from your licensing board.

 

%d bloggers like this: