Anatomy of a state board hearing

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Oct 01, 2007

It's simply a matter of cause and effect:

With the number of client complaints on the rise, more veterinarians sooner or later will have to answer to their state regulatory boards.

  • When that happens, what's the procedure?
  • Does the board definitively act on every complaint?
  • What are the possible outcomes?


Dale J. Atkinson
Veterinarians new to the procedure might ask those and similar questions, so DVM Newsmagazine put them to an expert — Dale J. Atkinson, an Evanston, Ill., attorney experienced in professional licensure and state regulatory-association law. Atkinson serves as legal counsel for the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB) and similar groups representing other professions. He regularly trains new members of state veterinary boards.

Atkinson outlined — in nine steps — the anatomy of a typical state-board procedure, starting with the filing of a complaint and continuing through investigation, formal hearing and resolution.

Some of the steps may vary slightly from state to state, Atkinson says, but essentially this is how the process works:

Step 1 A COMPLAINT IS FILED

Any consumer may file a complaint concerning veterinary services with the regulatory board in the state where an alleged wrong took place.

Step 2 INITIAL EVALUATION

The board's administrative staff weighs the complaint's validity. Is it signed or is it anonymous? Some states won't process an unsigned complaint, so the issue may end there. Others will pursue anonymous charges if they are deemed serious enough (especially if there are two or more similar complaints against the same DVM). Does the complaint come under the board's jurisdiction as defined in the practice act? A simple dispute over a fee, for instance, may not, and the staff will send the complainant a letter saying so.

The board likely will pursue charges of malpractice or malfeasance (which may include poor record-keeping, a common complaint in recent statistics). Any unprofessional conduct, practicing while incapacitated or impaired, conviction of a felony, alcohol or other substance abuse, acts of moral turpitude and misrepresentation or fraud are among grounds for disciplinary action.

Step 3 DECIDING WHETHER TO ACT

Even if a complaint seems to fall under its jurisdiction, the board can't take on every case because of limited manpower. It must look at the severity and decide early on whether to dedicate the necessary time and resources. Usually a subcommittee of board members and administrative staff, along with an assistant attorney general, meets to decide whether to begin an investigation — investigators may be state employees or outside investigators under contract — and build a prosecution. Any egregious charge likely will be pursued. Minor issues might be handled with a letter to the licensee.

Step 4 NOTIFYING LICENSEE OF FORMAL CHARGE

If the subcommittee decides to pursue the case, the board files a formal charge and notifies the DVM licensee, citing the portion of the practice statute allegedly violated and giving the licensee opportunity to answer, hire an attorney and prepare a defense against an administrative prosecution.

Step 5 POTENTIAL SETTLEMENT

The initial goal is to reach a settlement without going into a formal hearing. Among various options, the board could call for a period of probation, impose a fine, a temporary or permanent suspension of license or some combination of these. The penalty is negotiated with the licensee and his or her counsel. If settled in that way, a consent agreement is filed and recorded to end the matter.

At this point, similar to a criminal case, the complaining party has little further to say and, whether happy with the outcome or not, cannot influence the board's action, other than possibly to testify should a formal hearing takes place.