By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M. Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law
If you are scheduled to appear for an informal hearing before the Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy & Mental Health Counseling, there are a number of facts that you will want to know in order to be properly prepared. This article will cover many of them.
Limited Circumstances for Informal Administrative Hearing
First, you should understand that you will only be at an informal hearing in which you appear before the Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy & Mental Health Counseling itself for a very limited number of reasons. These will include the following:
2. If you entered into a settlement agreement (or "stipulation") (similar to a plea bargain in a criminal case) in which you agreed to accept discipline against your license.
1. If you completed an election of rights (EOR) form and agreed that you did not intend to dispute any material facts alleged against you from the administrative complaint (AC) in the case.
3. You failed to submit any election of rights (EOR) form and failed to file a petition for a formal hearing in a timely manner, and, therefore, you have waived your right to a formal hearing.
There are a few other circumstances in which there may be an informal hearing before the Board, such as motions to modify a final order, motion to lift a suspension of a license, appearance in accordance with an earlier order, petition for a declaratory statement, or other administrative matters. This article only discusses those directly relating to disciplinary action as indicated above.
What an Informal Administrative Hearing Is Not
1. An informal administrative hearing is not an opportunity for you to tell your side of the story. You have agreed that there are no disputed material facts in the case or you would not be at an informal hearing.
2. An informal administrative hearing is not an opportunity for you to prove that you are innocent of the charges. You have agreed that there are no disputed material facts in the case or you would not be at an informal hearing.
3. An informal administrative hearing is not an opportunity for you to introduce documents or evidence to show that someone else committed the offenses charged and you did not. You have agreed that there are no disputed material facts in the case or you would not be at an informal hearing.
4. An informal administrative hearing is not an opportunity for you to argue that you should not be in the board's impaired practitioners program (either the Professionals Resource Network (PRN) or the intervention Project for Nurses (IPN)) because you have completed a different program or that you do not have a problem. These are the only programs recognized and used and you have agreed that there are no disputed material facts in the case or you would not be at an informal hearing.
Formal Administrative Hearing vs. Informal Hearing
If you desire to contest the facts alleged against you then you must state this in writing. If the material facts in a case are challenged by you, then the Board or the Department of Health (DOH) (note: all professional boards are under the Department of Health in Florida) must forward your case to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) where a neutral, objective administrative law judge (ALJ) will be appointed to hold a formal hearing in your case. This is the only way that exists for you to prove that the facts alleged against you are incorrect or that you are not guilty of the charges made against you. In fact, you do not even have to do anything in such a case. The Department of Health has the burden of proof and it has to prove the charges against you and the material facts alleged against you by clear and convincing evidence. Often, it is unable to do this at a formal administrative hearing.
However, because of the technicalities of evidentiary law and administrative law, we do not recommend that a nonlawyer attempt to represent himself or herself at such hearings. You can make technical mistakes (such as answering requests for admissions incorrectly) that severely compromise any defense you may have. We recommend that you always retain the services of an experienced health lawyer in any such matter.
What to Do If You Find That You Are at an Informal Hearing and That You Do Desire to Contest the Material Facts of the Case (And Your Guilt or Innocence)
If you have been scheduled for an informal administrative hearing and you decide that you do desire to challenge the material facts alleged against you in the administrative complaint (AC), file a written objection to proceeding at the informal hearing. State that you have discovered that there are material facts that you do desire to challenge and that you desire that the proceedings be converted to a formal hearing. File this with the Clerk of the administrative agency you are before (usually the department of health or the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) and also send a copy to the opposing attorney and the executive director of the Board. Do this as early as possible and keep proof that you have actually and filed the written request.
If you are already at the informal hearing when you discover this, object to the proceedings on the record and ask to have the informal hearing be converted to a formal hearing where you may contest the material facts. State this as many times as reasonably possible.
Preparing for an Informal Hearing
Since you are not contesting the facts alleged against you, if you are going to an informal hearing be sure you do the following:
1. Be sure you know where the hearing is going to be held. Try to stay the night before in the same hotel as the hearing will be held. You will usually have to make these reservations early in order to get a room.
2. Attend a Board meeting that occurs before the one at which your case is scheduled. This will give you a feeling for the procedures that will be followed, will help to make you less nervous when you appear, and you can obtain continuing education units for doing so (be sure to sign in and sign out). Be sure to attend one of the days when the disciplinary hearings are held.
3. Dress professionally for the appearance. This may be the most important event in your professional career. For men, this means a suit and tie or, at least, a dark coat, dark slacks and a necktie. For women, a professional business suit or the equivalent is in order. Do not dress as if you are going to the park, the beach or out on a date. Do not wear sexually provocative or revealing clothing.
4. Check the agenda that is published on line a day or two before the scheduled hearing to make sure that your case is still scheduled for the date and time on the hearing notice. Informal hearings may be moved around on the schedule. Make sure you are there at the earliest time on the hearing notice or agenda.
5. Listen to questions asked of you by Board members and attempt to answer them directly and succinctly. You will be placed under oath for the proceeding and there will be a court reporter present as well as audio recording devices to take everything down.
6. Do not argue with the Board members or lose your temper. This is not the time or place to let this happen. If you have such tendencies, then you should have an attorney there with you who can intercept some of the questions and can make defensive arguments (to the extent that they may be permitted) for you.
7. You may introduce documents and evidence in mitigation. However, you have agreed that the material facts alleged are true, so you may not contest these. In effect, you have plead guilty and you are just arguing about how much punishment (discipline) and what kind of punishment you should receive.
8. If you do intend to introduce documents and evidence in mitigation, be sure you know what the mitigating factors are (these are published in a separate board rule in the Florida Administrative Code for each professional board). These may include, for example, the fact that there was no patient harm, that there was no monetary loss, that restitution has been made, the length of time the professional has been practicing, the absence of any prior discipline, etc. You should submit these far ahead of time with a notice of filing, so that they are sent out to the board members with the other materials in your file. This is another reason to have experienced counsel represent you at the informal hearing.
9. Be prepared to take responsibility for your actions. If you are not prepared to take responsibility, then this means you must believe you are innocent and you should be at a formal hearing, not an informal one.
10. Be prepared to explain what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what remedial measures you have taken to prevent a recurrence of this type of event in the future. Show that you have learned from this experience and that you are not going to make the same mistake again.
11. It is our advice to always retain the services of an experienced attorney to represent you at such hearings. Often your professional liability insurance will cover this. If you have professional liability insurance, be sure that it contains a rider or addendum that provides coverage for professional license defense matters and administrative hearings. You need at least $25,000 to $50,000 in coverage for this type of defense. If necessary, you should contact your insurer or insurance agent and have the limits increased for a small additional premium.
Other Little Known Facts to Remember
Professional licensing matters are considered to be "penal" or "quasi-criminal" in nature. Therefore, you have your Fifth Amendment rights in relation to being required to give evidence against yourself. You cannot be compelled to do this in such matters. However, since it is an administrative proceeding and not a criminal proceeding, there is no requirement that the licensee be advised of this by a DOH investigator or attorney.
If you enter into a settlement agreement and attend the informal hearing to approve it, nothing you say or testify to at this hearing can later be used against you. This is because you are involved in an attempt to negotiate and settle (or compromise) the claims being made against you. It is a general rule of law that nothing the parties say in such settlement proceedings can later be used as evidence if the settlement agreement is not approved. The law tries to promote settlements among parties to any dispute in this way.
It is true that on occasion the Board will examine a case on an informal hearing and will decide to dismiss it. This is rare, but it does happen. Sometimes, it will be a tactical decision on the part of you and your attorney to elect to go to an informal hearing with the hope that the Board may examine the case and decide to dismiss it. However, you cannot count on this happening.
Don't Wait Too Late; Consult with an Experienced Health Law Attorney Early
Do not wait until action has been taken against you to consult with an experienced attorney in these matters. Few cases are won on appeal. It is much easier to win your case when there is proper time to prepare and you have requested a formal hearing so that you may actually dispute the facts being alleged against you.
The lawyers of The Health Law Firm are experienced in both formal and informal administrative hearings and in representing social workers, marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors in investigations and at Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy & Mental Health Counseling hearings. Call now or visit our website www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.
About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave., Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.
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