Medical Marijuana and the Pitfalls for the Professional

The pitfalls of medical marijuana for the professional are more evident every day. Several weeks ago I wrote a blog on the challenges facing licensees who seek a medical marijuana card due to a medical condition. Prescription Drug History   In another blog I wrote about the complexities facing medical professionals who seek to become medical marijuana authorized prescribers.

 

In Pot Doc Article the Philadelphia Inquirer reveals Pennsylvania’s Medical Board, Health Department, FBI, and DEA investigatory practices in this field.  If you are a medical professional, please read this article.  I represented a peripheral, part time doctor moon lighting for Dr. Nikparavarfard.

Doctors working in a medical practice that includes a “Pot Doc“ – doctors that are authorized to write prescriptions for medical marijuana – are subjecting themselves to unnecessary oversight and inquiry.  When a  “Pot Doc” exposes himself to both criminal and licensing  investigations, they expose all nurses or doctors employed by that practice.  Drug Act violations are routinely found and criminal charges filed!.

The FBI and DEA’s investigation of Dr. Nikparvarfard’s Scranton office – the Pot Doc – necessarily also included  my client’s prescribing patterns.  An invasive, long running investigation turned to her simply because the police were investigating that practice and needed leverage against Dr. Nikparvarfard.  Experienced and accomplished undercover FBI, DEA, Health Department agents then ensnared my client.  Again, only because they were looking at Dr. Nik’s practice.

My client was not the prescribing “Pot Doc.”  However, the overarching Pot Doc investigation expanded to any potential criminal activity discovered within the medical practice.  But for my client working for the Pot doc and his medical practice, my client would not have been under surveillance. Unfortunately she was.

Once my client became known to FBI, her prescription and Medicaid/Medicare billing patterns were easily examined, patients contacted, and medical procedures evaluated.  Undercover patients were sent to the practice.  All because of the attention brought on the practice by Pot Doc Nikparvarfard.

One bad apple spoils the pie; two or three bad apples subject professionals to jail.  These types of investigations render medical professionals (nurses and doctors) unemployed and potentially unemployable.  Thereafter, professionals are the target of multiple investigations by medical boards, DEA,  Health Departments, and potentially the U.S. Department of justice.  But for my client’s employment with a Pot Doc, she would not have come under any surveillance.

This case is but one example of many to come.  Overarching public safety concerns, opiates in the news, and an aggressive enforcement environment of a new regulatory scheme create huge risks for both Pot Docs and those doctors and nurses who work with them.

Please call me to discuss

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What is a “Conviction” – How Important is Drug Court to the Licensed Professional?

In 1999 Tim Kearney was issued his Pennsylvania physician assistant (“PA”) license. In March 2010 he admitted himself into a treatment facility for drug addiction issues.  On August 16, 2011 he plead guilty to the felony Drug Act violation –  securing a prescription by fraud.  At the time of his guilty plea, Kearney acknowledges he understood that by pleading guilty he was  “admitting to committing the criminal charge” as alleged under the Pennsylvania Drug Act.

In December 2011 the Pennsylvania Medical Board automatically suspended Mr. Kearney’s PA license for no less than 10 years pursuant to section 40(B) of the Medical Practices Act of 1985.  This provision requires the Board to suspend any licensee who suffers a felony conviction for violating any provision of Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (CSA). 35 P.S. § 780–113(a)(12).

In December, 2011, Kearney filed in criminal court a petition to vacate his guilty plea and enroll in the county adult drug court program.  In June 2014, after 2 1/2 years in drug court, Kearney petitioned to vacate his guilty plea and dismiss the criminal case.   His request was based upon compliance with all terms and conditions of the program. On June 20, 2014 the county trial court dismissed all of Kearney’s criminal drug charges.  They were subsequently expunged. (This is really important.)

Six months later, in December, 2014, Kearney filed a Petition to Reinstate his PA license based upon the lack of criminal conviction, the expungement, and his extensive drug and alcohol treatment.  This blog discusses the Commonwealth Court opinion approving his petition and reversing the Medical Board’s refusal to reinstate Kearney’s PA license.  The case is found at Kearney v. Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, — A.3d —- (2017).

The Pennsylvania administrative law hearing examiner denied Kearney’s Petition to Reinstate his PA license. The hearing examiner concluded Kearney’s admission of guilt in the guilty plea colloquy and statement before the presiding judge when the charges were dismissed constitute either a conviction or an admission of guilt pursuant to the Medical Practices Act.  The hearing officer determined Kearney satisfied his burden of proof that he was able to resume his PA practice with reasonable skill and safety to patients, subject to monitoring by the physicians health program.

The Medical Board agreed with the hearing examiner that Mr. Kearney’s PA license remained indefinitely suspended as a result of a “conviction” as defined by the Medical Practices Act.  It did not reach the PHP and monitoring aspect of the decision because it determined Kearney’s license was still suspended.

Kearney appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which reversed. The sole issue on appeal was whether Kearney’s original guilty plea (vacated and now expunged) constituted a conviction and his statements on the record constitute “admissions of guilt“ in accordance with section 40B of the Medical Practices Act.

Commonwealth Court reviewed the Medical Practice Act.  “The Act provides, in pertinent part, that “[a] license or certificate issued under this act shall automatically be suspended upon … conviction of a felony under the act … known as [t]he [CSA] ….” 63 P.S. § 422.40(b). Section 40(b) of the Act clarifies that “[a]s used in this section, the term ‘conviction’ shall include a judgment, an admission of guilt or a plea of nolo contendere.Id.; see also section 2 of the Act, 63 P.S. § 422.2 (defining “conviction” as “[a] judgment of guilt, an admission of guilt or a plea of nolo contendere.

  • Section 43 of the Act further states that “[a]ny person whose license, certificate or registration has been suspended or revoked because of a felony conviction under the [CSA] … may apply for reinstatement after a period of at least ten years has elapsed from the date of conviction.” 63 P.S. § 43.

While the Act provides for automatic suspension of a license for a felony “conviction” under the CSA, the Act incorporates the CSA by express reference. By all reasonable means, this compelled the Court to unify two or more statutes in a cohesive and consistent fashion and avoid interpreting one statute in a manner that repeals or is otherwise incongruous with another statute.

Under section 17 of the CSA, a trial court “may place a person on probation without verdict if the person pleads nolo contendere or guilty to any nonviolent offense under [the CSA] and the person proves he is drug dependent.” 35 P.S. 780–117. (This is a Section 17 plea.)

Importantly, that section also states that “[u]pon fulfillment of the terms and conditions of probation, the court shall discharge such person and dismiss the proceedings against him,” adding that the “dismissal shall be without adjudication of guilt and shall not constitute a conviction for any purpose whatever ….” 35 P.S. § 780–117(3) (emphasis added). Section 19 of the CSA further declares that records of arrest or prosecution under the Act will be expunged. When a court orders expungement, the records “shall not … be regarded as an arrest or prosecution for the purpose of any statute or regulation or license or questionnaire or any civil or criminal proceeding or any other public or private purpose.” 35 P.S. § 780–119(b).

As a surface matter, Commonwealth court observes that a plain reading of the statutes indicates that, while the Act includes an “admission of guilt” as a subpart of the definition of a “conviction,” the CSA commands that a final disposition of “probation without verdict” does not constitute a “conviction.” Under the procedure in section 17 of the CSA for a “probation without verdict,” an individual’s “plea” is, in essence, held in abeyance, or not accepted, until there is a final determination by the court as to whether the individual has satisfactorily completed the terms and conditions of probation; if the individual does so, the trial court dismisses the charges and there is no verdict or finding of guilt in the matter.

Consequently, in order to afford the phrase “for any purpose whatever” in section 17 of the CSA its full linguistic effect, the Court reasonably interpreted it to mean that the oral and written statements made to a trial court in connection with a “probation without verdict” cannot be a considered a “conviction” for purposes of section 40(b) of the Act. To be sure, this construction is the only way in which the term “conviction” in the Act can be harmonized with the same term in the CSA.

Indeed, following dismissal of the underlying charges, the criminal record is expunged pursuant to section 19 of the CSA, and the criminal record cannot be used at all in an administrative licensing matter – not even as proof that the individual  was arrested or prosecuted.  In some statutes, our General Assembly, without using the word “conviction,” has expressly included the phrase “probation without verdict” to describe the basis upon which a licensing board can refuse, suspend, or revoke a professional license.

However, the General Assembly did not insert this or similar language in the Act. Nor did   the General Assembly inject “probation without verdict” alongside “admission of guilt” in the Act’s definition of a “conviction.” Inferentially, the divergence in word usage among the CSA, the Act, and other similar statutes is indicative of the General Assembly’s desire to conceptually separate an “admission of guilt” from a “probation without verdict,” suggesting to courts that the two should not be perceived or linked as being one and the same.

On the whole, Commonwealth Court precedent has clearly concluded as much.   For example, in Carlson, a teacher entered a plea of nolo contendere to charges that he possessed drugs in violation of the CSA, a plea that has “the same legal effect as a plea of guilty in the criminal proceedings in which it is entered.” 418 A.2d at 813. The criminal case proceeded under the provisions of section 17 of the CSA, and the teacher eventually had his criminal record expunged. Although this Court was convinced that the school district properly dismissed the teacher for immorality pursuant to sections 1122 and 1129 of the Public School Code, Act of March 10, 1949, P.L. 30, as amended 24 P.S. §§ 11–1122 and 11–1129, we pointed to the special nature and characteristics of the CSA and the probation without a verdict mechanism.

More specifically, the Court explained that when the charges are dismissed following compliance with probation, “no judgment is entered, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant is placed on probation, an act which normally constitutes a sentence, i.e. a judgment.” 418 A.2d at 813. On this basis, we determined that evidence of the teacher’s plea of nolo contendere was inadmissible, and further reasoned that, as a result of the expungement, there was “no criminal record” upon which the trier of fact could determine that the teacher engaged in conduct of a criminal nature. Id. Accordingly, this Court held that the teacher could not be discharged from his employment with the school district as a matter of law.

The crisp and clean understanding of this case is that in any Medical Board supervised license case, for which disciplinary action is based upon a conviction that has been opened and erased due to Drug Court compliance, there is no conviction.  There is no basis to deny reinstatement of a license.  Whether the PHP gets involved is a different question.  This case merely, but forcefully, allows for eligibility for reinstatement once Drug Court is served, complied with, and all charges are dismissed and expunged.

Call me to discuss your case.

 

Living Life to the Fullest Every Day

I woke up this October morning thinking “What can I do on an overcast, somewhat drizzly, muggy,  fall Sunday morning?  Mountain bike riding with biking buddies Rob and Caleb couldn’t have been easier decision.  The complicated question was where to ride in southeastern Pennsylvania.

We – six of us usually – have ridden (and gotten hurt and broke bikes) on multiple trails throughout Valley Forge State Park, Marsh Creek State Park, and the Green Lane Park and Reservoir.  Our local favorite, however challenging, was calling our names this morning. The pictures below do little justice to the beautiful, rugged, stream-studded creek gorge of Philadelphia’s 1800 acre Wissahickon Valley Park.

Starting out with wonderful hot coffee at Caleb’s house on near Elbow Lane, just east of McCallum, we dropped in near Climber’s Rock, riding the eastern side down to Rittenhouse.  From there, Forbidden Drive and the Blue Stone Bridge carried us over the creek and into the heart of the trails.  The three of us, lead by local favorite jeweler Caleb Meyer, climbed the western side near Kitchens – on the yellow trail – for over 8 miles of switch backs, hilly rollers, large rocks and steep inclines. Ever cautious and hoping not to get hurt, we made our way through this fabulous Sunday morning ride.

At Bell’s Mills and then Northwestern we saw the horses, forcing us to reckon with our approaching return trip home.  We crossed back over at Dewees Rock and Germantown Pike.  On this last 1/4 of the ride, worn and beaten down, we stopped several times to savor the scenery.  Waterfalls, covered bridges, and my favorite, the Lenape Chief Tedyuscung Statue.

The Indian Chief is always the highlight of my Wissahickon ride.  It is a challenge to get there, a joy to see, and a true testament to what hard work can achieve.  Leaving the Lenape Indian Chief behind, we headed east, picking our way back to Climbers Rock and Livesy Lane.  I have not ridden this part of the trial.  Each pedal stroke after 150 minutes in the saddle felt great, but exhausting.

We were finishing the last up hill climb to Elbow Lane, looking forward to some fine October-fest libation, when we suffered our first and only casualty of the ride.  Rob’s rear tire exploded with a hiss of exhaustion.  The brief walk out could not dampen our spirits or take the air out our awesome Sunday morning ride.  Thanks guys!  13.4 miles and 1500 elevation, 2.5 hours.

Social Media — Facebook, Instagram and State Licensing Board Prosecutions

Social media and the advent of voluntary public display of everything is starting to affect Pennsylvania’s professional licensing board investigations.  For the last ten years I have consistently represented client’s under investigation for drug diversion and theft.  These cases typically stem from hospital and nursing home based investigations.  A new twist in the investigatory practices of these cases has emerged.
It is important to realize how state board investigators are now utilizing social media as an investigatory tool.  Voluntary picture posts on Facebook, Instagram, or other websites will are now used as the professional’s own statements. Facial recognition software identifies and attaches names to various people in most photographs.  Aspiring and licensed professionals should pause when choosing which if any photographs to post or in which they are included that others are posting. This should give you the professional great concern.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Attorney General, Bureau of Narcotics Investigations (BNI) and licensing board investigators have begun to search social media for names, addresses, the identity of complaining witnesses, and/or information to aide their criminal and licensing prosecutions.  Investigators are learning —  through a target’s own social media self-promotion — the target’s social activities, accomplices, associates, friends, and favorites hang outs.  Many witnesses that would otherwise never be found are located, interviewed, and intimidated.
As well, during a client’s recent Nursing Board Mental and Physical Evaluation, the western Pennsylvania based psychiatrist asked my nurse client of her social media participation. This psychiatrist revealed he had searched Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets in preparation for the psychiatric drug impairment evaluation. The doctor sought evidence to confirm and corroborate my client’s statements during her evaluation about her social activities and drinking tendencies. The psychiatrist sought photographic and statement evidence which could reveal my professional client’s evaluation statements may have been inconsistent with social media and/or statements is medical records to her doctors.

Credibility is the most important piece of evidence in an independent medical examination and at a licensing application or disciplinary hearing.  The witnesses I  present at a licensing hearing (live, via telephone, or in a letter) corroborate and strengthen my professional client’s reputation, character, and credibility.
Photographs of social celebration in the context of disciplinary hearings based upon accusations of drunk driving or drug and alcohol impairments constitute important cross-examination evidence.  When a professional voluntarily hands to a psychiatrists, criminal or licensing board investigators evidence against them (or life style pictures that may poorly depict that licensee) it makes my defense harder and the prosecutor or psychiatrists impairment investigation easier.  DO NOT DO THIS  TO YOURSELF.

Medical Marijuana and the Physician Practitioner

In Pennsylvania medical marijuana is almost here.  Business licenses have been issued, dispensaries are being built, and physicians are getting approved as “Practitioners”.  Who will be their patients and how will dispensaries attract patients are unanswered questions as of yet.
The new regulations do set forth very specific proscriptions about who can certify a patient, which patients can be certified to receive a medical marijuana card, and the extent to which certifying practitioners are allowed to participate in this new business space.  This blog will discuss some of these issues.
Firstly, only physicians registered and approved by the Department of Health (“DOH”) as “Practitioners” may certify a patient to receive medical marijuana.   To qualify, a Practitioner must have an active, unrestricted medical or osteopathic license in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued pursuant to the Medical Practices Act or the Osteopathic Medical Practice Act.  Only the DOH determines if Practitioners are qualified to treat patients with one or more serious medical conditions. These conditioners are not listed in the regulations.
To become a DOH Practitioner pursuant to medical marijuana regulations the physician must take a four hour training course. The training course shall include important responsibilities of Practitioners under the Medical Marijuana Act, general information regarding medical marijuana under federal and state law, the scientific research regarding the risks and benefits of medical marijuana, and recommendations for medical marijuana as it relates to the continuing care of pain management, risk management opiate addiction, palliative care, overdosing on medical marijuana, informed consent, and other areas to be determined by the DOH.  1181.32.  All Practitioners must be familiar and compliant with the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.  A physician must possess knowledge of best practices regarding medical marijuana dosage based upon a patient’s serious medical condition and the medical professional’s medical training and specialty.  These provisions, while very vague and ambiguous, are extremely extensive.
Once, a physician is approved as a Practitioner (which has not yet happened), what is the process they must follow to issue patient certifications (the medical marijuana card)? The physician patient initial or follow up consultation must be complete, in person, and documented in the patient’s healthcare records contemporaneous to the issuance of a patient certification.  Any medical marijuana certification can only be issued consistent with (AFTER REVIEWING) the patient’s Prescription Drug Monitoring controlled substance use history. That law is found at 35 P. S. 872.1-872.40. A violation of the monitoring law is a Drug Act violation.
These initial evaluations could become the lynch pin of future disciplinary action against rouge physician Practitioners.  Practitioners can not simply meet a patient claiming to suffer from “cancer”  or a “serious” medical condition and issue a patient certification.  The doctor patient consultation must be complete and extensive.  These patients must already have a “serious” medical condition.  Practitioners must secure documentation of such prior to or contemporaneous with the patient certification.  Up to date X-rays, MRI’s, biopsy results, specialist’s reports, prescription drug histories, and/or copies of a complete medical history file should be secured before issuing the patient certification.  The Practitioner who does not initiate a best practices for these initial patient consultations will expose themselves to unhappy patients (who expect their certification at the first consultation) and disciplinary action for practicing below the standard of care and in violation of DOH medical marijuana regulations.
Patient certifications require complete patient identifiers, along with the diagnosis, assumption of continuing care for the patient, and the length of time (not exceeding one year) that the marijuana treatment would be palliative or therapeutic.  1181.27.  The Practitioner must also recommend either a specific dosage or consultation with the dispensary employee to recommend dosage.   Importantly, Practitioners may not receive or provide medical marijuana product samples — suggesting their patients “try this” to “see how it works”.
Patient certifications are easily revoked.  Practitioners SHALL notify the DOH in writing if they know or have reason to know that one of their certified patient has recovered from their “serious” medical condition, the patient has died, or the medical marijuana use would no longer be therapeutic or palliative. 1181.28-29. The regulations allow a Practitioner to withdraw the issuance of a patient certification at any time, without any reason,  upon written to notification to both the patient and DOH. 1181.29.   This will be  interesting in practice how these provisions play out.  Cancelling a certification could generate patient complaints to DOH and subsequent DOH disciplinary action.  Hence, full compliance with all patient contact and documentation requirements to properly answer  a DOH – and possible Medical Board – investigation is paramount and prophylactic.  DOH will be vigilant against any medical Practitioner violating these regulations.
Once a patient receives DOH revocation notification, the same is entered in the electronic tracking system. Any subsequent distribution of medical marijuana to an uncertified patient shall be a violation of the Prescription Drug Monitoring program protocols and, potentially, the criminal laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Here is where the trouble for Practitioners lie.  Any improper certification will become a violation of the Drug Act, possibly a felony, thereby creating automatic license suspension issues.
Department of Health regulations allow for a Practitioner to be removed from the medical marijuana practitioner registry if a Practitioner’s medical license is inactive, expired, suspended, revoked, limited or otherwise restricted by the Pennsylvania appropriate medical board. 1181.26. Any physician subject to professional disciplinary action is subject to immediate or temporary suspension of their medical marijuana participation.  A physician subject to any professional disciplinary action (Pennsylvania of other state) may be removed for the Practitioner list.  Importantly, these provisions only require the initiation of disciplinary action, not any formal conclusion to a disciplinary action.  This is a huge provision allowing for emergent and possible automatic suspension from the program and medical license problems.   Stay ahead of the investigatory curve; document everything, practice with extreme ethical limitations, assume any patient in your medical practice is not really sick or is an undercover DOH officer recording your every word.
There is an anti-kickback provision in the medical marijuana regulations. 1181.31(a). The only fee for service a practitioner can receive is from an actual or prospective patient consultation.  Practitioners cannot accept, solicit or offer any form of remuneration from anybody associated with the dispensary in any manner. (No baseball tickets, diners, college tuition, cars, lunch, Christmas baskets.)  All fee for services must be properly schedule and posted.  As there is no insurance coverage for these medical services, receipt for payment in cash must provided and properly documented. Accepting credit card payments for these services could expose the Practitioner to federal banking violations. Revenues must be reported to avoid any state or federal tax evasion investigations.  Depositing this cash in the bank is a separate issue for a separate blog.
Practitioners are extremely limited to whom they can issue certifications.    Practitioners can not be a designated caregiver for a their own patient to whom the Practitioner issues a certification, may not issue a patient certification for themselves or a family or non family household member.  Practitioners may not advertise their services as a Practitioner who can certify a patient to receive medical marijuana. 1181.31(b)-(f). Practitioners will require continuing, aggressive management of their qualifications to ensure continued compliance with DOH medical marijuana regulations. A Practitioner under the Act cannot hold a direct or economic interest in a medical marijuana organization.
Any physician removed from the practitioner registry may not have asked electronic access to patient certifications, issue or modify a patient certification, or provide a copy of existing patient certifications to any person parentheses including a patient caregiver, or other medical professional, except in accordance with applicable law.
Call me to discuss setting up your practice or any potential disciplinary issues associated with your practice as a practitioner certifying patients to receive medical marijuana.

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Northampton County’s 1861 Court Room!!

Finding the diamond in the rough. That describes my recent drive to the Northampton County Courthouse. As my law practice takes me from the Philadelphia’s suburban counties to northeastern Pennsylvania, I routinely travel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and its Northeast extension.
The drive this July week was rough. The weather forecast proved accurate; rain and fog through the Lehigh Valley. It was raining so hard, I missed my exit off Rt 476E at Rt 22 E. I drove an additional 20 miles each direction, turning around in Jim Thorpe. (I love the Carbon County Courthouse – see my other blogs – but I was not going there today.)
 I was uncharacteristically late, arriving at 9:25 am for a 9:00 am hearing.  I was otherwise safe.  The judge was extremely gracious and polite. The case was handled quickly.  Opposing counsel – a local assistant district attorney – offered a tour of the courthouse as I expressed my appreciation for our hearing taking place in the old courthouse, courtroom 3, as compared to the new 2004 building.
The county website states, “The original court house was built in  1764. Nearly a century later and after the courthouse had experienced a number of historical events, which included being used as a barracks by Revolutionary troops, a group of citizens petitioned for a new County Courthouse at a different location. On August 23, 1860, the County Commissioners decided to accept land offered at a price of $1.00 that was located several blocks west of the original facility.   A new brick structure was later built on a steep hill at a cost of $53,000. The first term of court was held in the new facility on June 18, 1861.  Since then, two additional wings were constructed to accommodate the growth of Northampton County and satisfy the judicial needs of the expanded population.  The second part of the courthouse was built in 1978 and the third in 2004. “
I was interested in the 1861 building and court room 1.  Finished at the out set of the Civil War.   Wow!! A majestic legal theater, refurbished in 1978 to match the import to the community when the courthouse was built. Original woodwork, plaster, and paint are renewed. County Commissioners rightfully chose to not clutter the court room with of a phalanx of computer cables, microphones, and other modern day accoutrements that clutter some other county courtrooms in which I practice.
The pictures below reveal the courtroom’s grand entrance, judicial bench, and the jury box of the times. The remarkable woodwork and attention to detail immediately reveals itself. The artisans of Pennsylvania’s counties knew their work would be on display at every important and public event of the times. The honor and respect they earned working for their local government on the most important building in the county.

Pennsylvania’s Accepts the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact Act

Pennsylvania has finalized its membership in the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact Act.  Found at 63 P.S. §395.2, the General Assembly authorizes the Governor to execute the Interstate Compact for Medical Licensure of non-Pennsylvania based physicians.  As I wrote previously last summer, the proposal substantially strips Pennsylvania medical licensees of many due process rights.

Pennsylvania based physicians who seek licensure in member states become subject to those jurisdictions’ criminal and disciplinary process, investigations and actions.  My prior blog addresses the significant pit falls of that process.  Reviewing the definition section of the enabling legislation (which is a nationwide standard set of definitions and procedures) helps understand how and why Commonwealth Pennsylvania physicians seeking multi-state licensure are at substantial exposure to extra jurisdiction disciplinary action without the many protections of Pennsylvania’s administrative due process.

A physician’s medical license, granted by a member state to an eligible physician, is subject to this new law’s legal definitions. First and foremost is the definition of conviction of any type of criminal act. Conviction means: a finding by a court that an individual is guilty of a criminal offense through adjudication, or entry of a plea of guilt or no contest to the charge by the offender. Evidence of an entry of a conviction of a criminal offense by the court shall be considered final for purposes of disciplinary action by a member board.  Potential criminal acts — any “Offense” means: a felony, gross misdemeanor or crime of moral turpitude.

At issue for Pennsylvania and/or New Jersey doctors is the difference in criminal versus administrative matters.  A DUI in Pennsylvania is criminal versus New Jersey it is administrative.  There are many matters in Pennsylvania that result in a summary resolution, not a felony and misdemeanor conviction.  What is a gross misdemeanor?  The Act does not differentiate.  In Pennsylvania, criminal charges are brought after a  preliminary hearing.  Many states proceed by indictment.  The Act does not distinguish enrollment in a non-conviction based diversion program.  How difference states render disciplinary action based upon different standards of conduct (from that of Pennsylvania Medical Board) and resolution – which each member state will now have to unilaterally accept – is significant.

These huge differences apply to all physicians.  Who is a physician.  Physician under the Act means a person who:

1. is a graduate of a medical school accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation or a medical school listed in the International Medical Education Directory or its equivalent;
2. passed each component of the United States Medical Licensing Examination or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination within three attempts or any of its predecessor examinations accepted by a state medical board as an equivalent examination for licensure purposes;
3. successfully completed graduate medical education approved by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education or the American Osteopathic Association;
4. holds specialty certification or a time-unlimited specialty certificate recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties or the American Osteopathic Association’s Bureau of Osteopathic Specialists;
5. possesses a full and unrestricted license to engage in the practice of medicine issued by a member board;
6. has never been convicted, received adjudication, deferred adjudication, community supervision or deferred disposition for any offense by a court of appropriate jurisdiction;
7. has never held a license authorizing the practice of medicine subjected to discipline by a licensing agency in a state, federal or foreign jurisdiction, excluding an action related to non-payment of fees related to a license;
8. has never had a controlled substance license or permit suspended or revoked by a state or the United States Drug Enforcement Administration; and
9. is not under active investigation by a licensing agency or law enforcement authority in a state, federal or foreign jurisdiction.

 

Licensees must identify a state of primary licensure.  That state will verify eligibility, conduct background checks, and maintain fingerprint and biometric data. However, these investigations and parameters are set through federal regulations, and not individual state law. Expedited licensure issued by the central processing state makes that interstate commission more powerful than the individual primary state. The interstate license is limited to a specific period of time in the same manner as required for the physicians holding a full unrestricted license within that state. And expedited license obtained through the compact shall be terminated if the physician fails to maintain a license in the state of principle licensure for a non-disciplinary reason, without re-designation of a new state or principle licensure.

Because there’s a coordinated information system, Pennsylvania’s law allows member boards to report to the interstate commission any public action or complaints against a licensed physician who has applied to receive the expedited license through the compact. Member boards report disciplinary or investigation information and determine if it is necessary and proper basis for disciplinary action by the interstate commissions. Member boards may report any non-public complaint, disciplinary or investigative information to the commission. Member boards will share complaint or disciplinary information.. This means even the most minimal initial disciplinary investigatory claims, unfounded, without final disciplinary decision, by a member state is automatically reported to the entire commission. Disciplinary action from the commission, not an individual state jurisdiction, could be the basis for disciplinary action. How does the physician defend himself or herself against this.

The Act specifically says “any disciplinary action taken by any member board against a physician license through the compact shall be deemed unprofessional conduct which may be subject to discipline by other member boards, in addition to any violation of the medical practices act or regulations in that state. Such a disciplinary action by one state may be deemed conclusive as to a matter of law in fact, allowing the member jurisdictions to impose the same or less or sanction or pursue a separate disciplinary action against position under its respective medical practices act, regardless of action taken and other member states.

 

Call me about your license application, conditional approvals, of pending discipline.

A Fringe Benefit of Practicing Law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

There are many benefits to being a licensed, practicing lawyer in this country and Commonwealth.  One fringe benefit (and I mean fringe) of practicing law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is driving through and to the counties in this jurisdiction.  Practicing in Delaware, Chester, York, Lebanon, Dauphin, Luzerne, Montgomery, Lackawanna, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Lancaster, Northampton, Monroe, Clearfield, Blair, Center counties, I drive throughout the Commonwealth.  The word Commonwealth does not do justice to the beauty of the counties in which I travel and the courthouse in which I practice.

Monroe County Court House Square

 

One recent cool, spring day I had the pleasure of a relaxing drive from my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia to the Monroe County Courthouse in the quaint hamlet of Strousburg, Pa.  I left my home at 7:00 am.  By 7:45 I entered the Lehigh Valley and was approaching the scenic Delaware River Water Gap area.  I left Philadelphia in a heavy fog, arriving in the Lehigh Valley as the fog began dissipating from the  mountain valleys.   Steamy slopes and long shadows were cast as the sun climbed over the hills and heated the morning sky.  Route 78’s mountain passes were freed from their foggy blanket revealing the height of the tree-topped slops.  What a peaceful ride.  The rich majesty of Penn’s Woods (the translation of the word Pennsylvania) became evident.

The coffee shop on the square at the Monroe County Court House, Strousburg, Pa

Home made scones, croissants, and danish.

Upon arriving in Monroe county and the courthouse square, I had the pleasure of stopping for coffee at the café duet. Pictured above, I partook in a croissant and perfect cappuccino in the a sun-lit square.  I could have been in any hamlet or borough in another country.  I, however had the pleasure of attending to my profession, take care of a valued client, and being given the opportunity to enjoy Monroe County.

In between mentally organizing my case, I day dreamed about the incredible mountain bike riding trails that snaked through the various gorges, streams, and mountain passes. Exercising both my mind and body is a wonderful activity I engage in on a daily basis.  I will be in Center, Blair, and Clearfield counties over the next several weeks.  I will cherish my time and my profession while I enjoy the best the Commonwealth has to offer this summer.

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Proposed Pennsylvania Law for All Licensee’s Criminal Charge Reporting Responsibilities

In February several Pennsylvania state senators introduced Senate Bill number 354 of 2017. This bill drastically changes licensees reporting responsibilities once they are charged with a crime. Currently, most licensees (Except nurses) must report a criminal charge only upon conviction. Senate Bill 354 as currently written specifically states:

Section 2.1.  Reporting of sanctions and criminal proceedings.

(a)  Duty.–An individual who holds a license, certificate or registration issued by the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs shall, as a condition of licensure, certification or registration, do all of the following:

(1)  Report to the appropriate licensing board or licensing commission a disciplinary action taken against the licensee, certificate holder or registrant by a licensing agency of another jurisdiction.

(2)  Report to the appropriate licensing board or licensing commission an arrest, indictment or conviction of the licensee, certificate holder or registrant.

(b)  Time.–A report under subsection (a) shall be made as follows:

(1)  Within 30 days of the imposition of the sanction described under subsection (a)(1).

(2)  Except as set forth in paragraph (3), within 30 days of the earlier of:

(i)  an arrest under subsection (a)(2); or

(ii)  an indictment under subsection (a)(2).; or

(iii)  a conviction under subsection (a)(2).

(3)  In the case of a criminal action under subsection (a)(2) that is initiated prior to the effective date of this paragraph, within 30 days from the later of:

(i)  the date of conviction; or

(ii)  the effective date of this paragraph.

If a licensee does not report a new arrest within 30 days, the licensee is subject to additional disciplinary action.

All Pennsylvania licensees may soon become subject to disciplinary action as a result of accused, not convicted, criminal conduct.  This is a much different from the current scenario of disciplinary action upon conviction. The remaining subsection identified below is consistent with current procedural due process rights to a licensee whose license is subject to an immediate clear and present danger emergent suspension.

(a)  Temporary suspension.–A licensing board or licensing commission may temporarily suspend a license, certificate or registration under circumstances as determined by the board or commission to be an immediate and clear danger to the public health and safety. The board or commission shall issue an order to that effect without a hearing, but upon due notice, to the licensee or, certificate holder or registrant concerned at his last known address, which shall include a written statement of all allegations against the licensee or, certificate holder or registrant. After issuing the order, the board or commission shall commence formal action to suspend, revoke or restrict the license or, certificate or registration of the person concerned as otherwise provided for by law. All actions shall be taken promptly and without delay.

(b)  Hearing.–Within 30 days following the issuance of an order temporarily suspending a license, certificate or registration, the licensing board or licensing commission shall conduct or cause to be conducted a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is a prima facie case supporting the suspension. The licensee or, certificate holder or registrant whose license or, certificate or registration has been temporarily suspended may be present at the preliminary hearing and may be represented by counsel, cross-examine witnesses, inspect physical evidence, call witnesses, offer evidence and testimony and make a record of the proceedings. If it is determined that there is not a prima facie case, the suspended license, certificate or registration shall be immediately restored. The temporary suspension shall remain in effect until vacated by the board or commission, but in no event longer than 180 days.

(c)  Automatic suspension.–A license or, certificate or registration issued by a licensing board or licensing commission shall automatically be suspended upon:

(1)  the legal commitment to an institution of a licensee or, certificate holder or registrant because of mental incompetency for any cause upon filing with the board or commission a certified copy of the commitment; or

(2)  conviction of a felony under the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L.233, No.64), known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, or conviction of an offense under the laws of another jurisdiction which, if committed in this Commonwealth, would be a felony under The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act.

(d)  Stay.–Automatic suspension under subsection (c) shall not be stayed pending an appeal of a conviction.

(e)  Restoration.–Restoration of a license or, certificate or registration shall be made as provided by law in the case of revocation or suspension of the license or, certificate or registration.

New to the licensing and regulatory scheme for every licensee is the ability of a licensing board to automatically suspend a license if the licensee is committed to a mental health facility for any reason or a conviction under the Drug Act. Restoration of the licensees license suspended under Senate Bill 354 shall be consistent with any other procedural due process rights.
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A Great Commonwealth Court Appellate Review

April has been a busy month for appellate decisions.  A recent case of my was decided in my client’s favor.  Important lessons are learned from this case.

On March 27, 2015, the Board issued an order to show cause why Freeman’s license should not be suspended, revoked, restricted, or a civil penalty imposed, for violating the Practical Nurse Law, 63 P.S. §§651-667.8, and the Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA), 18 Pa. C.S. §§9101-9183. The six counts set forth by the Board as follows:

(1) under Section 16(a)(5) of the Practical Nurse Law, 63 P.S. §666(a)(5),3Link to the text of the note because Freeman was convicted of a crime of moral turpitude (criminal conspiracy to commit theft by deception from Home Depot);

(2) under Section 16(a)(5) of the Practical Nurse Law, because Freeman was convicted of a crime of moral turpitude (theft by deception from a Majestic Oaks resident);

(3) under Section 9124(c)(2) of CHRIA,4Link to the text of the note because Freeman was convicted of a misdemeanor related to the profession (theft by deception from a Majestic Oaks resident);

(4) under Section 16(a)(4) of the Practical Nurse Law, 63 P.S. §666(a)(4),5Link to the text of the note in that Freeman [*4]  committed fraud or deceit in securing her admission to practice (by failing to truthfully answer the question about having pending criminal charges on her biennial renewal application);

(5) under Section 16(a)(8) of the Practical Nurse Law, 63 P.S. §666(a)(8),6Link to the text of the note in that Freeman was guilty of unprofessional conduct (by committing theft by deception from a Majestic Oaks resident); and

(6) under Section 16(a)(3) of the Practical Nurse Law, 63 P.S. §666(a)(3),7Link to the text of the note for violating the Board’s regulation at 49 Pa. Code §21.148(b)(4),8Link to the text of the note which prohibits nurses from misappropriating property or money from patients (by committing theft by deception from a Majestic Oaks resident).

When the board entered a penalty of license suspension rather than probation. Factually, my presentation of the evidence at the hearing was given great weight on appeal.

Freeman testified on her own behalf. Regarding the criminal charges that led to ARD, Freeman explained that a friend had asked her to drive her to Home Depot to make a return. Her friend did not have a receipt or her driver’s license, which the store required to process a return. Accordingly, Freeman gave her driver’s license to the store clerk. While Freeman was waiting for the return to be processed, her friend borrowed her car keys and placed shoplifted merchandise in Freeman’s car.

Regarding the conviction for theft, Freeman acknowledged that she used a patient’s personal financial information to pay her utility bills. She explained:

Well, at the time, I was raising my son on my own as a single mother. Everything was on the verge of being cut off. You know, I didn’t want to have to go back to the shelter. I made a stupid decision to do that.

Notes of Testimony (N.T.), 7/2/2015, at 33; R.R. 56. Freeman expressed remorse for her actions, stating:

I mean, I’m just nervous because — you know, I worked so hard to get where I am today. I do regret the — some of the decision[s] that I’ve made, because I love my career. I love helping people. I love what I do, and based on the decisions that I’ve made, it’s just jeopardizing my whole career. I had to spend lots of money, you know, for lawyers and court costs, fees and everything. But yes, I do regret being here today, in the situation that I’m in today, I mean.

Id. at 43-44; R.R. 66-67.

Freeman recounted the difficult circumstances she overcame in her personal life. Freeman explained that, after graduating from high school, she became involved in an abusive relationship for approximately one year. She moved to a shelter, where she lived for two years. Id. at 46; R.R. 69. While living at the shelter, Freeman enrolled in a certified nursing assistant (CNA) training program and obtained her CNA license. She found employment and, after saving some money, moved out of the shelter and into a one-bedroom apartment. Shortly thereafter, Claimant gave birth to a son, for whom she was solely responsible because the father was incarcerated. Freeman worked several jobs while continuing her nursing education and, in April 2013, earned her certificate in practical nursing.

As I have said many times, mitigation evidence is huge.  Handling these cases at a hearing requires trained counsel to properly distill the facts for the court.  On appeal, finding the winning argument also takes experience.  In this case, the multitude of criminal allegations confused the Board.  It disciplined her for a conviction she did not suffer.

Freeman challenges the Board’s sanction because it cited crimes for which she was not convicted and facts not in the record. The record showed that Freeman pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit theft at Home Depot and one count of theft for stealing financial information from a nursing home resident. She was not convicted of stealing the resident’s jewelry; that criminal charge was nolle prossed. The Commonwealth responds that it matters only that Freeman was convicted of theft. Whether it was theft of jewelry and banking account information, or just banking account information, is irrelevant. The Board argues that its reference to a conviction of theft of jewelry was harmless error. We disagree.

In making its decision to increase the penalty, the Board stated that “[Freeman] was convicted of theft for stealing jewelry and using the bank account of an elderly patient to pay her personal bills.” Board Adjudication, 7/26/2016, at 1; Freeman Brief at P29 (emphasis added). This fact is not supported by the record. The charge related to theft of jewelry was nolle prossed, and there is a difference between a criminal charge and a criminal conviction. Freeman asserts this requires a reversal of the Board’s sanction. The Board responds that the record supports this disputed statement and directs this Court to the Hearing Examiner’s finding of fact that “[t]he charge of Theft by False Impression was the result of [Freeman’s] theft of property including jewelry and checking account information….” Proposed Adjudication, 11/19/2015, at 5; Freeman Brief at P39.

A charge is an accusation or allegation that a person committed an offense. By contrast, a conviction is a finding by a court that a person is guilty of a criminal offense. In short, the finding of fact cited by the Board does not support its assertion that Freeman was “convicted” of “stealing jewelry.”

We won this case.  The license suspension was reversed.  The case has been sent back down to the Board.

 

 

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