Defending a state-board action has far-reaching costs

Defending a state-board action has far-reaching costs

Nov 01, 2007

Are you facing a state-board inquiry? Think you can handle it alone?

Think again.

Then get yourself a good lawyer.

That's the advice of Linda H. Wyner, a California attorney and co-editor of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association (AVMLA) Newsletter.

She should know.

Wyner has defended DVMs in board hearings in 14 states, coast to coast.

"Even those veterinarians who have gone to law school are likely to find they aren't fully prepared to navigate the shoals of litigation when it comes to state boards," she says.

Wyner has noticed an uptick in the number of state-board cases in the last few years — to the point that it's become a busy niche for her law firm, LHW Law Group in Walnut Creek, Calif. Many cases come to her through her consulting work for a large national chain of veterinary hospitals. For cases outside her home state, she retains and advises local counsel for DVMs and in some cases obtains temporary admission to practice in those states, allowing her to be present to assist the defense at board hearings.

To what does she attribute the increase in state-board actions?

"It seems to go hand-in-hand with an upsurge in malpractice suits," Wyner says. "News of that, plus media attention given to what animal-rights and welfare activists are doing, makes consumers more aware of the standard of care they think veterinarians should be held to. Also, state boards, because they're usually underfunded and overtaxed, know they can't investigate every complaint, so they might cherry-pick the more high-profile cases — not to besmirch the profession or make it harder for veterinarians to practice, but to make it more obvious that they're doing their job of policing the profession."

Why should DVMs hire a good attorney as soon as they are notified that a complaint was filed against them?

"Veterinarians are honest, trusting people, many of whom seem to believe that, 'If I simply tell board investigators the truth, answer all their questions and tell them everything I know, everything will be all right and they'll leave me alone.' That's unwise and naïve," Wyner says.

"Many doctors get charged with secondary violations not even related to the original one because they didn't properly focus on the main complaint, gave too much information or, worse, allowed an unqualified staff member to speak to investigators."

Is a state-board action of greater concern than a malpractice suit?

Some veterinarians seem more afraid of malpractice suits, "but I consider the state-board hearing to be of much greater concern, with potentially much stiffer costs and penalties," says Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD, a DVM Magazine contributing author who provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians.

DVMs called to appear before state boards to respond to charges face "serious and substantial" costs, Allen says. Both he and Wyner agree that these costs fall into three principal categories:

  • Career or professional costs,
  • Economic (or licensure) costs and
  • Emotional costs.

They offer the following theoretical and actual-case examples of each:

The career costs

An unfavorable verdict in a malpractice case may end in money damages, generally covered by insurance, Allen says. But an unfavorable verdict in a state-board hearing can carry much stiffer penalties. According to Allen, these include:

  • License suspension, which the public likely will be able to discover.
  • License revocation, which can result in the need to change careers entirely.
  • An order to practice under supervision, which the public also will be able to discover "and which must be about as embarrassing as anything a professional person can imagine," Allen says.
  • A period of probation, with the veterinarian possibly required to obtain more continuing education, write a paper or perform community service and/or pay a fine.