Drug Act, Automatic Suspensions, and the Time Period for Reinstatement

In November, I wrote a blog about  McGrath v. Bureau of Prof’l & Occupational Affairs, No. 5 WAP 2017, 2017 Pa. LEXIS 3109, at *12-13 (Nov. 22, 2017). Felony Convictions and License Reinstatement This case has now been interpreted in a second license revocation appeal. Joseph Thomas Acri, D.O., Petitioner v. Bureau of Professional…, — A.3d —- (2018). Acri, a D.O., medical license was suspended due to prescription fraud.   The State Board of Osteopathic Medicine (Board), automatically suspended his license to practice osteopathic medicine and surgery pursuant to section 14(b) of the Osteopathic Medical Practice Act (Act) based upon his felony convictions under The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (CSA), 35 P.S. §§ 780-101—780-144.   He appealed his 10 year ineligibility for license reissuance.

In McGrath, the key holding focuses on the 10 year license ineligibility after a Drug Act felony conviction.  The Court there ruled that the statute evidenced irreconcilable ambiguities regarding whether an individual must wait ten years before applying for reinstatement after having his or her license suspended for violating the CSA. In so holding, the Court noted that a general provision in the Law granted the licensing board with authority to reissue a suspended license, irrespective of a time frame; the section providing for a ten-year waiting period applied to “applicants;” the section dealing with a five-year waiting period concerned the “revocation” and not the “suspension” of a license; and the provisos relating to the “restoration” or “reissuance” of a license made it unclear through which provision the licensing board should consider an application for reinstatement.

After applying the general rules of statutory construction, the Court in McGrath determined that the statutory language remained ambiguous, and because the Law was penal in nature, the court construed it strictly and in favor of the individual. Therefore, the court reversed the licensing board’s order to the extent it imposed a license suspension for a mandatory period of not less than ten years and concluded that the licensing board should process any application for reissuance in accordance with the general, discretionary provision of the Law granting it the power to reissue a suspended license.

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McGrath’s nursing license was automatically suspended – not revoked – when she was convicted of violating the Drug Act (it seems a felony).  McGrath petitioned for reinstatement of her nursing sometime shorter than 10 years.  McGrath argued the Nursing Act’s provision for reinstatement allowed for the Board to grant such application within its discretion at any time, not earlier then 10 years stated under a separate provision of the Nursing Act.  The Court agreed, stating it is within the Board’s discretionary provision of the Law granting it the power to reissue a suspended license.

 

Acri argued the same logic and reasoning applied to the statutes and Board regulations applicable to license doctors under the Osteopathic Act, 63 P.S. § 271..2 and 14a.  Acri maintained the Board’s order automatically suspending his licenses for a period of not less than ten years was in error.  The Court agreed!   Importantly, at oral argument before the appellate court, the Board conceded that there were no statutory time constraints placed upon Petitioner and that he could apply for reinstatement or reissuance when he so desires.  This is the ruling of McGrath!

 

The Acri Court, however,  admonishes the Osteopathic Board and all other licensing Boards to implement this procedure.  “However, this concession does not alter the fact that the Board’s order strongly suggests otherwise, or is at least ambiguous. Although we have no doubt that, in the future, the Board will fulfill its promise to interpret and apply its order in the way that it said it would, this Court nevertheless has an obligation to address the legal issue presented to it.”

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Here the court is saying to the licensing boards, fix your Board disciplinary orders and remove the time period of disqualification for petitions for reinstatement.   The Court’s language is very instructive. “Therefore, pursuant to our decision in McGrath, we modify the Board’s order insofar as it imposed a mandatory five or ten year suspension on Petitioner’s license. In accordance with this memorandum opinion, any reissuance request from a suspension for violating the CSA shall be processed and reviewed under section 15(c)(6) of the Act.”

These two decisions continue in the process of allowing for license reinstatement or reissuance sooner, and not under and specific time period of preclusion.  The difficult legal issue now will be that an appeal of any board order denying license reinstatement for felony Drug Act conviction will be based upon an abuse of discretion standard and not an error of law standard.  The abuse of discretion standard is viewed in light of the general rule that all licensing boards are charged with the responsibility and authority to oversee the profession and to regulate and license professionals to protect the public health and safety. Barran v. State Board of Medicine, 670 A.2d 765, 767 (Pa .Cmwlth.1996), appeal denied 679 A.2d 230 (Pa.1996).

An abuse of discretion is generally defined as a misapplication of the law, a manifestly unreasonable exercise in judgment, or a final result that evidences partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will. Allegheny County v. Golf Resort, Inc., 974 A.2d 1242 (Pa.Cmwlth.2009); Pastorius v. State Real Estate Commission, 466 A.2d 780 (Pa.Cmwlth.1983). When reviewing the exercise of discretion by an administrative agency, the Court may not, in the absence of bad faith, fraud, capricious action or abuse of power, inquire into the wisdom of the agency’s action or into the details or manner of executing agency action. Slawek v. State Board of Medical Education and Licensure, 526 Pa. 316, 586 A.2d 362 (1990); Blumenschein v. Pittsburgh Housing Authority, 379 Pa. 566, 109 A .2d 331 (1954). Appellate courts may interfere in an agency decision only when there has been a manifest and flagrant abuse of discretion or a purely arbitrary execution of the agency’s duties or functions.  Although the Commonwealth Court is required to correct abuses of discretion involving penalties and sanctions imposed by a licensing board, the appeal court may not substitute its discretion for that of the board, which is an administrative body endowed with expertise in matters subject to its jurisdiction. Burnworth v. State Board of Vehicle Manufacturers, Dealers, and Salespersons, 589 A.2d 294 (Pa . Cmwlth.1991).

Call me to discuss your case on appeal.

 

 

 

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Professional License Indefinite Suspensions for Missing the Mental and Physical Evaluation

Board authority to  compel a mental and physical examination(“MPE”)  is pursuant to 63 P. S. § 2205(D)(1).  The purpose of the evaluation is to determine whether, under 63 P. S. 224(a)(2) for nurses, a licensee is unable to practice their profession with reasonable skill and safety by reason of mental or physical illness or condition or psychological or physiological dependence on alcohol, hallucinogenic on narcotic or other drugs that impair judgment and coordination.  Similar impairment evaluation provisions are contained in each of the twenty six different Pennsylvania licensing schemes.

A formal board order compelling attendance always accompanies these Petitions.  The Board signs the order to compel both attendance and compliance with document production requirements.  Typically, these petitions are filed, licensees show up at the expert’s office for the examination compliant with the terms and conditions of the MPE order.  It is the unique case where a licensee does not show up and their license is summarily suspended.

License suspension is based upon the Pennsylvania Code provisions that states,  if a licensee fails to attend the MPE,  the allegations of impairment are deemed true.  The admissions of fact and law allow the Board to conclude impairment and formal suspension is ordered.   License reinstatement after this step requires attending a PHMP expert evaluation (at the licensee’s expense) and complying with all other aspects of the suspension order.
Why or how would a licensee not go to the Mental and Physical Evaluation?  Failure to maintain an up-to-date address with one’s Pennsylvania licensing board, resulting in missed notices is the first way. Secondly, thinking these appointments can be unilaterally changed or failing to properly communicate scheduling conflicts create huge problems.  Minor inconveniences though do not warrant not attending the procedure.  The last way is the simplest; a licensee simply does not attend the evaluation for fear of the result.
Case law discussing these provisions specifically requires proper Board notification of the MPE and suspension to the licensee’s address of record.  The address on record is the address to which the Board is required to provide notice of a disciplinary action in order to honor its constitutional due process obligations.  The Board only needs to provide proof of service via regular and certified mail.  It is licensees burden to attend or reschedule the evaluation.
Why do licensees have to go to these evaluations?  Section 224(a)(2) of the Nursing law, for example, is the standard provision in every regulatory board scheme.  Board prosecutors receive information suggesting an impairment.   In seeking licensure, licensees agree to be regulated by the State.  Licensees agree to honor the provisions of Pennsylvania code and case law interpreting the code.

The MPE is just such a provision in an over arching regulatory scheme the Commonwealth has erected to protect its citizens from errant and high licensees (realtors, doctors, pharmacists, nurses and the like).  My blogs deal with my role in preparing each licensee for the MPE. However, I cannot accept mail for each licensee. Once we are retained, I am able to re-scheduled the MPE with consent of either the doctor, Board counsel or prosecuting counsel.  This allows me time to assist the licensee organize their documents and prepare for this expert examination.  I cannot receive the mail.

The consequence on the licensee of not attending the evaluation is significant. While not immediate, eventual license suspension for failure to honor a Board order will occur. Reinstatement will only take place upon attendance of that MPE.  Additional requirements include providing a criminal background check, proof of compliance with all continuing education burdens, proof of no practice during the term of suspension, and payment of investigatory costs.
As well, included in the typical MPE order is the Board paying for the evaluation.  Once a licensee refuses or fails to attend the MPE, the MPE expert evaluation expense must be borne by the licensees.   Please call me to discuss your recent mail compelling you to attend a mental and physical examination.or suspending your license for missing one.

Good Moral Character? Moral Turpitude?

What is moral turpitude? What is good moral character? These questions arise in cases contesting a disciplinary action based upon a conviction of a misdemeanor or felony and in applications for reinstatement of a professional license after revocation. How does one prove that they are both a person of moral character and posses the moral turpitude that warrants either reinstatement or no disciplinary action?

Every licensing scheme possesses a provision allowing that licensing board to revoke or cancel a license when a licensee is found guilty of a felony charge or an felony or misdemeanor offense in conjunction with the practice of that license, or found guilty of conduct involving moral turpitude by court of competent jurisdiction or a jury. Moral turpitude is not defined in any of the licensing acts.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court routinely defines moral turpitude to mean anything done knowingly contrary to justice, honesty, or good morals.  The terms good moral character and the lack of moral turpitude are used interchangeably to define each other in many cases.  ‘Fraud’ certainly has acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law. Black’s Law Dictionary 594 (5th ed. 1979) defines fraud as any kind of artifice employed by one person to deceive another.

In a March 2015 case, an individual convicted of 3rd degree murder, who served 10 years of a 10 year sentence, sought reinstatement of his podiatric license. He presented character witnesses, proof of some rehabilitative efforts, and efforts to maintain up-to-date on podiatric medicine continuing education requirements. The board rejected his application for reinstatement, concluding he had not presented sufficient evidence of rehabilitation and did not present sufficient remorse. Long v. Bureau of Prof’l & Occupational Affairs, 2015 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 130, (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2015).

Many cases state that the petitioner seeking reinstatement carries the burden of proof in establishing that they meet all of the licensure requirements for reinstatement. The pivotal issue on these types of cases, both for reinstatement and contesting disciplinary action, is what efforts were made by the licensee to rehabilitate their character such that they now or still possess good moral character to be trusted to hold a license at the time of reinstatement or disciplinary action. Garner v. Bureau of Prof’l & Occupational Affairs, 97 A.3d 437, 440, 2014 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 391, 5-7, 2014 WL 3734280 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2014)

In reviewing the evidence a petitioner presents demonstrating good moral character, character witnesses, post jail release behavior, and the delay in time between criminal event and application for reinstatement are not enough. Proof of sufficient rehabilitation does not just include attending victim counseling, religious services, and paying restitution. Krichmar v. State Board of Vehicle Manufacturers, Dealers and Salespersons, 850 A.2d 861, 864 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004), requires clear and credible expressions or evidence of remorse and corrective community action. Lack of remorse itself is a sufficient basis to deny reinstatement. Storch v. State Board of Vehicle Manufacturers, Dealers and Salespersons, 751 A.2d 263, 264 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000).

Shallow and unimposing claims of entitlement to reinstatement that show little remorse for the victim of the crime will not carry the day. Licensing boards look for individuals to rehabilitate their character through established patterns of behavior that are honorable, trustworthy and consistent with the communities’ current ethical standards that show an absence of moral turpitude. The “determination of whether a crime involves moral turpitude turns on the elements of the crime, not on an independent examination of the details of the behavior underlying the crime.” Licensing boards will not re-litigate the facts underlying the criminal conviction.

Character witnesses must base their conclusions of an applicant’s credibility upon factual interaction and consensus amongst a large group of individuals. Bringing to a hearing just the respondent/applicant’s immediate social or family circle will not carry the day. Employment related job evaluations and supervisors and coworkers who may provide the Board with significant and weighty testimony about the applicant’s established pattern of honorable and trustworthy behavior consistent with current community ethical standards is a priority in the evidence presented.

Call me to discuss your disciplinary action or attempts at reinstatement of your professional license.

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