A Harsh Disciplinary Enforcement Environment for Pennsylvania Licensees

I write this blog in preparation for a Pennsylvania Nursing Board ordered Mental and Physical Examination (“MPE”) of a client.   It is startling the number of these board ordered evaluations or PHMP/PHP/PNAP assessments due to some type of licensee criminal conduct.  The heightened disciplinary activity among all boards reveals a much stricter atmosphere of licensee disciplinary enforcement.  Why?
Pennsylvania’s heightened disciplinary environment is based upon a single legislative occurrence and a single judicial decision.  Legislatively, passage of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana regulatory scheme has prompted a review of all licensing laws in anticipation of increased licensee impairment and criminal activity due to marijuana usage (legal or not).
A prime example of this is Senate Bill 354 of 2017.  I wrote about this bill last week.  This bill seeks to compel any licensee charged with a crime (not convicted) to report such to their respective licensing board within 30 days of arrest.  Failure to report will constitute a separate basis for discipline.  This Bill seeks to bring the boards’ immediate knowledge of licensee’s criminal conduct so discipline can commence sooner.
Pennsylvania’s licensing boards subscribe to JNET – Pennsylvania’ criminal fingerprint data base.  The Boards already know of licensee’s criminal charges of which they already expect them to report upon conviction.  However, the Boards now want quicker reporting, with an additional and stronger basis for discipline.  False reporting and failing to report criminal conduct!!
But this bill is not not law.  So what’s the juice?  The juice is that current licensee’s facing disciplinary action for some really minor issues will think twice before smoking pot; they will tell their friends and co-workers to think twice before smoking pot and taking care of the public.  The health related boards are gearing up prosecutors for stricter supervision of all licensees.  In this conservative jurisdiction, pot is thought to be a gateway drug to heroin.  The prescription based opiate epidemic caught the health related boards with their pants down.  It will not happen again with the passage of medical marijuana.
The enforcement environment also extends to potential licensees enrolled in any health related school who apply for licensure with a criminal history of one or two DUI’s.  I represent many individuals whose licensure applications have been stalled based upon conditional denials and compelled PHMP enrollment.   A new regulation requiring  license applicants to be licensed within 12 months of taking their board examinations aides the Board in weeding out potential applicants who do not accept PHMP enrollment.
DO NOT go willy-nilly to the PHP/PHMP assessment and or evaluation with the expectation that you will pass and be given your license.  DO NOT answer the personal data sheet with out consulting an attorney.  DO NOT talk to the PHMP intake or assessors without attorney preparation.  They write everything down — your story of depression, injured or dead family members, your divorce, your child abuse history.  The PHMP people will always recommend enrollment in the VRP after you, the new licensee, admit your mental health treatment, drug use, and inability to practice safely.   How can you admit you can not practice safely if you have never practiced?  Applicants fighting their cases must be patient and call me ASAP. 
The Birchfield decision (written about in other blogs) is the judicial decision most affecting disciplinary actions.  Birchfield focused on the admissibility of blood alcohol levels as a result of a non-consensual blood draw in a DUI investigation. This case has rippled through every Pennsylvania county’s drunk driving enforcement efforts.  Birchfield ruled inadmissible DUI blood evidence that revealed drugs (illegal or prescription) and/or marijuana use.
Birchfield rendered blood drug use evidence an inappropriate basis for licensee disciplinary action.  The heightened reporting responsibilities of nurses (30 days from arrest), allow petitions for mental and physical evaluations based upon affidavits of probable cause reflecting alcohol or drug use even though blood evidence is not admissible in a court of law.  The Boards want to know right away what its licensees are smoking or drugs they are ingesting.
Pennsylvania licensees need to fight every criminal case. The new notice provisions in Bill 354 will become law.  While criminal charges are pending licensees will have to provide a potentially incriminating personal statement to a licensing board.  This is crazy.  There is no 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in a professional license defense.  Licensees need an attorney to help draft counseled answers to strategic legal questions and statements under these circumstances.  Now, more than any time in the recent past, licensees should utilize counsel to properly protect their license.
The Boards use their experts to determine impairment.  Why shouldn’t you use your expert to protect your license?  Licensees face workplace challenges, complex life issues, and now a crazy enforcement environment in Pennsylvania.    Mail from the PHMP, PHP, and PNAP present multi- faceted traps for even the most experienced licensees.  Licensee need their own expert — an experienced criminal and administrative law attorney to effectively protect their license.  Call me to discuss your criminal or license case.

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.

 

 

PHMP — Pennsylvania — How It Really Works

Here is an email I received this week

RN w a PA license started pnap program 4 yrs ago and they will not let me out if the program. I fulfilled all the requirements and I’m over the amount of time stated in my contract. Every months they come up w something new and threaten to add another year to three. They also threaten if I contact a lawyer I can kiss my license goodbye and I truly believe they have the power to do anything at this point.

They treat me as if I have a substance abuse and test me relentlessly and at one point bc of ice n snow I missed testing they cut my hair and did hair analysis which was negative. In four years I have never had a positive test. And that’s w 1,2,3,4 times testing. Month. I was supposed to be released in November 2016 I missed a call in the day I was leaving for the beach. Packing for 6 kids 10yo and younger for a week distracted me a bit. That is when they threatened to add 3. More yrs for noncompliance. I’m already over my time! Yesterday I could not make a test bc 3 of my kids were vomiting and Had high fevers I could not drag them out w out torturing them. So again I’m getting threatened w more time ands or never seeing my license again. I went I to this program thinking they were here to help me. Obviously they are here for the $$ and to make near impossible to complete the program. I’m stuck. They have taken all the money I have. No I’m finding out it’s not the pnap making the calls it’s the testing company.

This is email presents legal issues about which I receive calls every week.  This email is reflective of the PHMP and PNAP, how the treat their enrollees in the program.  Read this email again before signing any documents and call me.

More importantly, understand the exploding opiate addiction pain medication problem our cities, states, rural areas, and country is facing.  Stepped up offering and then enforcement of the impair professional program, and all of its terms and conditions, is reflected in the statistics a recent news article discussed. Video of ABC News Investigation

However, the statistics cited int he article,73% of all disciplinary cases are for drug and impairment issues, only reflects the stepped up threats, coercion, and intimidation the program administrators are using in convincing people to go into the program that some do not really need.  Read my many other blogs discussing how single offense DUIs, Public Drunkenness, and other minor infraction are brought tot he Board’s attention, resulting in PHMP and PNAP “Letters of Concern” being sent to professionals and scaring them into the program.

Call me to discuss your case.

 

 

 

 

JNET, Criminal Charges, and What to Do Next

The summer is over. All the fun in the sun in done. Now, back to work. But for professional licensees who had some criminal justice interactions over the summer that have been put off, ignored, or quietly resolved, these issues need attention again. This is because by now, or soon to your mailbox, you will receive notice from your professional licensing board of their knowledge of your criminal charges.

Fifteen months ago, when the Nursing Board changed its regulations to require 30-day reporting of criminal charges (not conviction), the Board needed to begin the process of making sure its licensees were timely reporting criminal charges. While the Nursing Board may have already been a subscriber to JNET, it stepped up surveillance of every licensee. What does this mean?

The Nursing Board, and every other Board, became a daily recipients of JNET computer searches results of its licensees’ criminal interactions. JNET is now an integral part of every licensing Board’s investigatory process. The Boards are subscribers to JNET to receive daily notice of any positive hit of licensee’s criminal charges through a computer algorithm search of its queried database.  AND BELIEVE ME, THE BOARDS ARE GETTING NOTICES EVERY DAY.  IN TURN, THIS MEANS THAT THE BOARDS ARE ASSIGNING THE NEW CASES TO THE PHMP, VRP, AND/OR PROSECUTORS, TO INVESTIGATE AND IF NECESSARY, FILE ORDERS TO SHOW CAUSE, PETITIONS FOR MENTAL AND PHYSICAL EVALUATIONS, OR FILE DISCIPLINARY CHARGES.

What is JNET – From the JNET WEBSITE it reads

JNET is the Pennsylvania Justice Network. The Pennsylvania Justice Network (JNET) is an integrated, secure justice portal providing an online environment for authorized users and systems to access public safety and criminal justice information. JNET is the Commonwealth’s primary public safety integration service provider. JNET is a result of a collaborative effort of municipal, county, state, bordering states and federal justice agencies to build a secure integrated justice system. While each agency maintains ownership and control of their data, JNET allows authorized criminal justice and public safety professionals to securely and safely access information from multiple providers through one interface.

The Pennsylvania Justice Network (JNET) is the Commonwealth’s primary public safety and criminal justice information broker. JNET’s integrated justice portal provides a common online environment for authorized users to access public safety and criminal justice information. This critical information comes from various contributing municipal, county, state, and federal agencies. One-time data entry has improved the effectiveness of participating agencies, and has significantly improved data accuracy throughout the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system. Information entered into a records management system at the onset of an investigation can now follow the offender throughout their criminal justice tract. As offenders pass through the gateway of justice all the way to post-sentencing supervision, offender information flows in concert with the offender’s progression.

JNET allows users to subscribe to real-time event messages for comparison against offender watch-lists. When an event message is published, it is compared against watch-list records and the subscriber is automatically notified via email. When a significant event such as an arrest, disposition, want, warrant, state parole violation, PennDOT change of address or death occurs, users are alerted to check secure JNET for detailed event information.

The licensing boards know of any criminal charge, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct , DUI, drug charges, and more withing 24-48 hours of fingerprinting and processing in ANY STATE IN THE COUNTRY. Reporting your criminal interaction timely and completely is important. Failing to report is a separate disciplinary event from the criminal offense.

Responding to “Letters of Concern”, VRP enrollment letter, understanding what VRP, PNAP, PHMP case workers can and will do once you begin talking with them is pivotal to saving your license. Read my web site and other blogs. Attorneys handling criminal cases do not understand this professional licensing scheme, the evaluation consequences, and the prosecution attorney’s role is to protect the public .

Call me to discuss the letter in your hand, the petition sitting on your desk, or ask the questions you have after speaking to a VRP case worker who just told you to have your boss call them so you can keep working!!!!

Gross Immorality Behavior against Demented Patients Requires Nursing License Revocation

Today’s blog concerns inappropriate nurse behavior, attitude, and conduct towards our senior citizens which will become the basis for disciplinary action and/or license revocation. In Leanne Vitteck, LPN, Petitioner v. Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, State Board of Nursing, the appeals court was asked to determine whether the State Board of Nursing properly permanently revoked a nurse’s license for gross immorality.

Here nurse Vitteck was accused to have forcibly removed a sensor monitor from the hand of the 89-year-old nursing home resident who suffered from dementia. Vitteck was accused of stating that she was “sick of being a f*cking babysitter” to this victim. Vitteck was also accused of allegedly threatening to “break the hands” of 97-year-old resident suffering from dementia. On a third occasion the same nurse threatened a wheelchair bound resident with physical violence.

Vitteck was formally charged with failing to respect and consider patient’s rights to freedom from psychological and physical abuse, failing to safeguard patients from incompetent, abusive or illegal practices, and engaging in gross immorality and being unfit or incompetent by reasons of habit negligence. These allegations are in violation of Sections 16(a)(1), (2), (3) and (8) of the Practical Nurse Law and Sections 21.148(a)(2) and (3) of the Nursing Board’s regulations, 49 Pa.Code §21.148(a)(2) and (3), which set forth the standards of nursing care. At the administrative hearing, the prosecutors presented eyewitness testimony to each physical and verbal confrontation. The witnesses confirmed the factual allegations of both the Vitteck’s behavior. Importantly, the witnesses also confirmed the excessively difficult patient, each of which was suffering from severe dementia.

The Board found the facts were relevant and appropriate to revoked permanently Vitteck’s license because she was “unfit and incompetent to practice by reason of habits, negligence and other causes and that the nurse engaged in unprofessional conduct by failing to respected consider patients rights to freedom of psychological and physical abuse and to safeguard her own patients from abusive practices.” The Board concluded that rehabilitative efforts, such as retraining or suspension would be futile and that the nurse’s profanity, verbal threats, and physical conduct together, not independent of each other, warranted revocation.

The appeals court was very clear in its conclusion that the Board’s decision coupling the physical and verbal abuse together warranted suspension. The court indicated that profanity in and of itself, along with verbal inexcusable, discourteous, and reprehensible behavior is not typically enough to establish gross incompetence. The court cited several cases indicating that professionals who use profanity towards patients, clients, and other professionals does not support a showing of professional incompetence. “While it may be unwise, it does not rise to amount of incompetence which warrants revocation of a professional’s license.”

However, the Court went on to say the Board was correct that in the context of long-term nursing facilities LPNs must “[r]espect and consider, while providing nursing care, the individual’s right to freedom from psychological and physical abuse” and “[a]ct to safeguard the patient from incompetent, abusive or illegal practice of any individual.” 49 Pa.Code §21.148(a)(2) and (3). Verbal abuse is defined as any use of oral written word gesturing language that willfully includes disparaging and derogatory terms to residents or their families or within hearing distance, regardless of age ability to comprehend. The board determined that Vitteck failed to respect and consider, while providing nursing care, the individuals’ right to freedom from psychological and physical abuse.

Importantly, the court affirmed the Board’s holding that merely slapping the patient’s hand, where the patient is in danger falling out of bed cannot by itself constitute a violation of the standard of nursing care where such care is “calculated to promote the patient’s well-being.” However the board held that factually Vitteck was not engaging in any nursing conduct that was calculated to promote the patient’s well-being. The Board concluded that the records reflected profanity in conjunction with physical inpatients and forceful and aggressive disciplinary behavior in no way would promote the well-being of a patient suffering from dementia.

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