Important Update for Texas Nurses on a Board Order: Texas Board of Nursing Starts Screening for EtG and EtS
During the last month my firm has experienced an influx of calls from nurses who have tested positive for alcohol while on an Order with the Texas Board of Nursing. The consequences of testing positive for a prohibited substance, including alcohol, while under a Board Order can be quite severe. This includes an automatic temporary suspension of the nurse's license and a high likelihood that this suspension will be continued until the nurse has subsequently obtained twelve consecutive months of sobriety verified by additional random drug and alcohol testing. Moreover, from a legal perspective it is very difficult to mount an effective defense in the face of a positive test and avoid these harsh consequences.
The reason for the sudden increase in nurses testing positive for alcohol appears to be the Texas Board of Nursing's new decision to include testing for ethyl glucuronide (EtS) and ethly sulfate (EtS) in their screening panel. Previously, the screening company used by the Texas Board of Nursing only tested for ethanol, however, the Board recently signed a contract with a new vendor that includes both EtG and EtS screening in their panel. This is crucial as the sensitivity and detection window of EtG and EtS testing is much higher than a traditional urine ethanol screen.
Ethanol, or alcohol, is the primary intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic beverages. Accordingly, a person who has ingested alcohol will only test positive for ethanol as long as the alcohol remains in their system. Once it has been fully metabolized by the liver, the person will no longer test positive. Given this is a relatively quick process ethanol testing will generally only provide a 10-12 hour window in which to detect if a person has ingested alcohol. If the person has only had one or two drinks, the detection window is even shorter.
In contrast, EtG and EtS testing can detect even light alcohol use over a period of several days. Additionally, these tests, and the low cut-off levels used by the Board, are highly sensitive to even a small amount of alcohol ingetsion. It is also well documented that inadvertent, casual exposure to alcohol in the environment can cause a person to test positive. Sources of incidental exposure to alcohol that can cause positive results include:
- hand sanitizers containing alcohol;
- foods containing trace amounts of alcohol;
- non-alcoholic beers such as O'Doul's;
- colognes and perfumes;
- sustained exposure to gasoline and other chemical agents containing alcohol;
- mouthwashes containing alcohol such as Listerine and Scope;
- over-the-counter medications containing alcohol;
- certain natural and herbal medications.
I am unaware whether the Board has provided nurses testing pursuant to a Board Order with information concerning this new testing panel. Ideally, nurses should also be provided with a list of different substances which can inadvertently cause a positive result. For many years, nurses in the Texas Peer Assistance Program for Nurses been given this information prior to their enrollment in testing and hopefully the Board is doing or will soon be doing the same. This is also the standard of practice for the Texas Physician Health Program and the Professional Recovery Network.
Texas nurses testing through the Board need to be made aware that they are now being tested for EtG and EtS and receive education on how to avoid an inadvertent positive. Whether a nurse who has already tested positive can mount a legal defense is largely dependent on their test level and whether they were positive for both EtG and EtS. A low positive can be an indication of only inadvertent exposure to alcohol while a test that is positive for EtG but negative for EtS strongly suggests either a contaminated sample or the spontaneous production of ethyl glucuronide in the specimen container. In District Court actions, my firm has previously successfully challenged on these bases two automatic suspension orders entered against physicians by the Texas Medical Board.
If you have tested positive for EtG or EtS, it is prudent to contact an attorney with Board experience immediately to explore your legal options. The Board is likely to move quickly to temporarily suspend your license and time is of the essence. Even if a suspension is inevitable, oftentimes an attorney can be useful in negotiating a subsequent Order with the Board that minimizes the amount of time the nurse will be unable to practice.
In the past few years, my Firm has handled an increasing number of cases with the Texas Board of Nursing involving social media websites and the disclosure of confidential patient information. This can be a confusing topic as there is considerable gray area as to what constitutes the impermissible release of patient information and what is an appropriate communication by a nurse in a public forum.
Every nurse is aware of the duty to safeguard patients' identities and confidential health information. Maintaining this confidentiality is a requirement under both federal and state health care privacy laws as well as one of the Texas Nursing Board's minimum standard of nursing practice. In most circumstances, nurses are well aware of how to protect patient confidentiality and are knowledgeable of the procedure to follow when it appears as though a privacy breach has occurred. The growing prevalence and usage of social media and smart phones, however, has significantly increased opportunities for the improper release of confidential information and the resulting receipt of a Board complaint.
A greater awareness of this problem has led the Texas Board to directly address this issue in both its October 2011 and April 2012 quarterly newsletters. In these articles Board Staff outline several representative scenarios involving the improper disclosure of patient information and discuss what went wrong. While limited in content, these articles are helpful in that they provide some indication of the Board's approach to this issue and general guidance on what is considered to cross the line.
A common thread through the Board's examples is the limited control a nurse can exercise over communications posted on the internet or sent via social media. As an example, one of the scenarios discussed in the Texas Board of Nursing's April 2012 quarterly newsletter involves a nurse who posted in the comment section of her local newspaper's website. Although the content of the post did not identify the patient in any way, the Board's concern was that someone familiar with the nurse or patient's family could infer the patient's identity. To the Board's credit, the article states that this nurse was only issued a warning letter informing her that any future improper disclosures could result in disciplinary action.
As seen in the above example, the posting of even veiled statements about a patient that do not disclose the patient's identify can be problematic. This is because a posting on a public website can be viewed by potentially anyone. While the same statement to one person may be sufficiently disguised to prevent a confidentiality breach, another individual may have sufficient outside knowledge to guess the patient's identity and thereby be exposed to protected health information. In contrast to a one-on-one verbal exchange, a nurse who writes about work on Facebook, an online messaging board, or even in an email, has little control on who will subsequently view it. Additionally, the nature of online communications is that they will often remain in place indefinitely.
If a nurse has disclosed confidential patient information, the Texas Board of Nursing will take into account factors such as whether it was intentional or not, the nature of the information disclosed, how it was disclosed, and what sort of remedial measures taken by the nurse to correct it. Cases where the statement at issue has been carefully obscured by the nurse in order to protect the patient's identity can often be dismissed if handled appropriately by an attorney. As stated above there is always substantial gray area where it is not clear what constitutes an improper disclosure.
In the ongoing debate on patient confidentiality and social media, it is imperative to remember that nurses should retain the ability to discuss cases amongst themselves as this is an important source of learning through shared experience as well as a way to blow off steam in what is a difficult profession. A nurse must keep in mind to do so in an appropriate manner, however, and to avoid online discussions, even in a nurses only forum, due to the lack of control over who may ultimately view the communication. The bottom-line is that the Texas Board of Nursing's general approach in this area is highly conservation and Staff frequently pursue cases against what to an independent observer would not constitute an improper disclosure.
Any nurse who is already facing an investigation by the Texas Board of Nursing for the disclosure of confidential patient information should contact an attorney. It has been the experience of the attorneys at the Leichter Law Firm that early intervention by a seasoned nursing board lawyer can substantially impact the ultimate outcome with the Texas Board of Nursing.
The Texas Board of Nursing has recently started offering a new type of agreed order which allows, with some significant reservations, nurses to avoid a permanent disciplinary mark on their record. Pursuant to the Legislature's mandate that the Board administer a pilot program to study the feasibility of deferred disciplinary actions, the BON has enacted rules governing this program and outlining what type of cases are eligible for the new deferred disciplinary order. For those interested, the enacting statute is located at Section 301.1607 of the Nursing Practice Act and the governing rule is found at Title 22, Section 213.34 of the Texas Administrative Code.
A nurse who receives a deferred disciplinary order can have the order and original complaint dismissed and removed from their licensure record with the Board of Nursing if they successfully complete the terms of the order and receive no further disciplinary actions within the next five years. At the end of the five year period the deferred order is effectively sealed and any record of its existence is removed from the Board's website. Additionally, this disciplinary action is then deemed confidential and is not subject to disclosure to either the public or a nurse's employer.
There are significant limitations to these confidentiality protections. First, prior to the five year mark, the deferred disciplinary order is completely public and will appear in both the Board's Newsletter and on the nurse's online licensure page. Second, as with any Board order, the BON is required to file a report with the Healthcare Integrity Protections Data Bank (HIPDB). As this is a creation of Congress, it is subject to federal law and does not recognize confidentiality protections created at the state level. This means that a record of the disciplinary action taken against the nurse will stay in HIPDB indefinitely and remain accessible to employers regardless of its erasure in Texas.
Eligibility for a deferred disciplinary order is restricted to those cases which can be resolved through either a Warning with Stipulations or less severe order. Matters normally disposed of through a Reprimand, Probated Suspension, Enforced Suspension, or Revocation are not eligible for a deferred disciplinary action. Furthermore cases involving criminal or sexual misconduct, chemical dependency or substance abuse, intentional acts, falsification, or deception are likewise not eligible for the pilot program. The program is designed to apply to nurses whose cases show a lack of situational awareness or a knowledge or practice deficit. Finally, nurses with a prior disciplinary history with the Board cannot receive a deferred disciplinary order.
Its limitations aside, the deferred discipline pilot program is a welcome development and should prove beneficial in resolving marginal cases involving minor violations of the Nursing Practice Act. A nurse with an active case before the Board of Nursing curious about whether they may be eligible for a deferred disciplinary order should contact an attorney experienced in administrative law and in representing clients before the BON.
The Texas Board of Nursing has recently created and implemented a new, confidential procedure in which to resolve disciplinary investigations. Typically, the Nursing Practice Act limits the Board’s discretion to resolve a case through anything other than a public Order. In a welcome innovation, the Board now has the authority to settle a restricted set of cases involving minor violations of the Nursing Practice Act through a confidential, non-disciplinary corrective action procedure.
Eligibility for a corrective action plan is limited and at the sole discretion of the Nursing Board’s Executive Director. A nurse may be eligible to have their case resolved through a corrective action proceeding if this is the first time they are being charged with one of the following violations:
- Practice on a delinquent (expired) license for more than six months but less than one year;
- Failure to comply with continuing competency requirements;
- Failure to verify licensure/credentials of person for whom nurse is administratively responsible;
- Failure to provide complete and accurate answers to the Board, your employers, or potential employers about matters like your employment history, licensure history, or criminal history;
- Failure to comply with Board requirements for change of name/address;
- Failure to develop, maintain, and implement a peer review plan according to peer review requirements; and
- Failure of an advanced practice registered nurse to register for prescriptive authority in an additional role and population focus area.
See 22 Tex. Admin. Code § 213.32(2)
There are several benefits to receiving a corrective action plan as opposed to a normal disciplinary order. These include:
A nurse is typically ineligible for a corrective action plan if they have committed more than one of the violations listed above. Id. at § 213.32(3). Moreover, if a case has already progressed to a contested case hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings, the Executive Director no longer possess the discretion to resolve a matter through corrective action.
- Not Disciplinary Action: Corrective Action is not considered disciplinary action. 22 Tex. Admin. Code § 213.32(1);
- Limited Penalty: The penalty may only be a fine, remedial education, or any combination thereof. See Tex. Occ. § 301.652(a)(1). Should a fine be imposed the amount for first time offenders is $500. 22 Tex. Admin. Code § 213.32(3). Hence a nurse doesn’t have to worry about having their license revoked or suspended or being subjected to a period of monitoring by the Board;
- Finality: Once the nurse accepts the corrective action the case is closed. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.655(a);
- Greater Confidentiality: The corrective action is not public information unlike an agreed order or a formal hearing. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.652. As a result it is not subject to public disclosure, does not appear in the Board’s Newsletter, nor is it reported to the Healthcare Integrity and Protection Databank;
- Non-Admission of Guilt: A person’s acceptance of corrective action does not constitute an admission of a violation but only constitutes a plea of nolo contendere. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.657. However, if the board imposes a sanction on the person for a subsequent violation then it may treat a person’s acceptance of corrective action as an admission of a violation. Id.
It is important to note that the Legislature has included a provision within the authorizing statute requiring that the nurse accept an offer of corrective action within twenty days of receiving the proposed resolution from the Board, otherwise the Executive Director will have to pursue the complaint via the normal investigation process which could end with a public disciplinary action. Tex. Occ. Code §§ 301.654, 301.655.
As an attorney who represents numerous nurses before the Texas Board of Nursing each year, I view this as a positive initiative which should prevent relatively minor disciplinary issues from resulting in a potentially embarrassing public order. In fact, if anything, I feel the Board of Nursing could benefit from even greater authority to resolve cases through the kind of confidential order/process that is available to other state licensing entities such as the Texas State Board of Pharmacy and the Texas Medical Board through the new Physician Health Program.
The corrective action procedure has been especially helpful in my own practice for cases involving a nurse’s isolated failure to disclose minor criminal history on a licensure or renewal application. In the past, this could only be resolved through a public remedial education order which would remain on a nurse’s record indefinitely and be published in the Board’s Newsletter.
Any nurse with an active investigation with the Texas Board of Nursing would be well advised to consult with an attorney as to whether or not their case may be eligible for resolution through a corrective action plan. As stated above, this is an opportunity which can disappear once a case has proceeded to an advanced stage leaving a nurse with a limited choice between either litigating their case to its conclusion or accepting a public disciplinary order even if the Board’s allegations are of a de minis character.
As a general rule, licensing Boards such as the Texas Medical Board, Texas Board of Nursing and Texas State Board of Pharmacy are prohibited from exceeding the powers granted to them by the Legislature. The Legislature passes enabling statutes that create the licensing Boards and circumscribe their jurisdiction. The Boards may then pass administrative rules expounding and filing in the blanks of areas which the Legislature has order them to regulate. These rules cannot conflict with the statute, however, and are, in fact, subordinate to it. Thus, if the Legislature did not give them the power to regulate a particular activity, the Boards generally cannot expand their jurisdiction to regulate that activity by adopting an administrative rule. Problems arise, however, when the statutes are imprecise or vague in limiting the Boards’ powers.
Given the multitude of laws instituted by our Legislators, imprecise and vague definitions are bound to crop up. Such is the case with the term “unprofessional conduct.” As an example, the Medical Practice Act allows the Texas Medical Board to discipline its licensees if they commit “unprofessional or dishonorable conduct that is likely to deceive or defraud the public, or injure the public.” Tex. Occ. Code 164.052(a)(5). Note that there need not be any actual harm done. While the statute goes on to give some guidance as to what conduct deceives or defrauds the public (Tex. Occ. Code 164.053) it gives us no definition of what constitutes unprofessional or dishonorable conduct that is likely to injure the public.
Similarly, the Texas Board of Nursing is allowed to discipline nurses for unprofessional or dishonorable conduct that, in the board’s opinion, is likely to deceive, defraud or injure a patient or the public. Tex. Occ. Code 301.452(b)(10). Likewise, the Texas State Board of Pharmacy can discipline its licensees for both unprofessional conduct and gross immorality. Tex. Occ. Code §§565.001(a)(2)-(3). Troublingly, the Legislature appears to have left it in the hands of the Pharmacy Board to determine the definition of unprofessional conduct and gross immorality.
How do the licensing Boards use this power? The Boards have frequently used this provision as a hook to discipline licensees over whom they would otherwise have no statutory power. For example, the Medical Board is explicitly allowed to discipline licensees for convicted misdemeanors if the misdemeanors can be related to their practice as a physician (Tex. Occ. Code § 53.021(a)(1)) or involve “moral turpitude” (Tex. Occ. Code § 164.051(a)(2)(B)). Moral turpitude is another vaguely defined term; it is generally implicated in crimes involving fraud or deceit but is otherwise difficult to characterize and apply. Regardless, by classifying other misdemeanors as “unprofessional conduct”, however, the boards can extend their powers beyond the limits set by the Legislature.
The Board of Nursing, which is subject to similar statutory restrictions, has labeled “unprofessional conduct” such misdemeanors as possession of an unlicensed firearm, criminal mischief, obstruction of a highway, and criminal trespass, none of which are a crime relating to the practice of nursing or classified as an offense of moral turpitude. I have also encountered cases where the Board was reluctant to license an individual or wished to impose discipline based on conduct which is not even criminal, such as a client’s former employment as a stripper or a person’s private conversations on an internet social networking site. Furthermore, I have seen multiple situations where a client is being pursued due to what is essentially an employment dispute, such as lying on an initial application, an area over which the Board involved likely has no jurisdiction.
In conclusion, licensing Boards frequently utilize this method as a means to expand their jurisdiction beyond their enabling statutes. “Unprofessional conduct” is used as a pretext to regulate licensees for activities that do not involve the licensed occupations at all. If you are facing an investigation or disciplinary matter before a state agency and feel the basis of their action has no relationship or bearing on your license or practice, you very well may be right and would be wise to contact an attorney familiar with the respective Board’s statutes and disciplinary process.
After receiving a letter of investigation from the Texas Board of Nursing and providing their initial response, it is quite common for a licensed nurse to wait for a long time prior to hearing any additional word from Board Staff. When a response does come, however, it is often in the form of a proposed Agreed Order or even a request that the nurse voluntarily surrender their nursing license. If a nurse has not yet sought legal advice from an attorney farmiliar with professional license defense, now would be the time to do so, as signing the proposed Agreed Order is a final resolution of their case and effectively serves as an express or tacit admission that the Board of Nursing’s allegations are true.
So what exactly is an Agreed Order in the context of the Texas Board of Nursing? The Nursing Practice Act, the Board’s administrative rules, and the Administrative Procedure Act authorize a state licensing board such as the Board of Nursing to resolve disciplinary cases through an Agreed Order. By signing the Agreed Order, both the licensed nurse (LVN, RN or APN) and the Board are agreeing to a legal settlement resolving all outstanding allegations in exchange for a set of requirements or stipulations to be imposed on the nurse. These stipulations can range from the active suspension of the nurse’s license, a mandate that the licensee submit to random drug testing over a number of years, a restriction on where and when a nurse can work, supervision requirements, fines, and even demands that the licensee complete additional CE courses.
A common inquiry received by my law office is whether or not a nurse who has already signed an Agreed Order which has been ratified by the full Board can now back out of its requirements. Please know that once an order has been signed and officially entered by the Board, it is extremely difficult to negate the stipulations or re-litigate the underlying allegations with the lawyers for the Board. In a small minority of cases it may be possible to modify the Order by petitioning the Nursing Board’s Eligibility and Disciplinary Committee which typically meets every other month. However; it is very rare to even be granted a hearing before the E & D Committee let alone be granted the requested relief.
A nurse should never sign an Agreed or Voluntary Surrender Order lightly and without first seeking legal advice form a lawyer who is well versed in administrative law and nursing license defense. Otherwise they will not know if the requested Order is legally justifiable or is backed up by sufficient evidence. The Board, coming from their perspective as the protector of public safety, usually seeks, at least initially, the most severe punishment which they feel is supported by their rules and various disciplinary guidelines. Oftentimes, a nurse may be able to achieve a better result with adequate representation by an experienced professional licensing attorney. I strongly urge Texas nurses to seek legal advice before signing any proposed Order; otherwise they may find themselves regretting it later or even belatedly discover they are no longer allowed to work at their preferred place of employment. Too often I see nurses who have signed Orders which they never should have been on in the first place become trapped in a downward spiral of compliance and other issues which threaten their ability to continue practicing.
When confronted with allegations of drug diversion or intemperate use, an employer will frequently present a nurse with a choice: either accept a referral into TPAPN or face a report to the Texas Board of Nursing. For a nurse who actually suffers from a substance abuse or chemical dependency diagnosis, acceptance of a referral toTPAPN may be a wise first step towards recovery. Nurses who do not believe they are an appropriate candidate for TPAPN, however, may want to give pause prior to pursuing that route as the restrictions and conditions imposed on a participant are onerous and will affect, sometimes drastically, their ability to continue practicing in their present capacity.
This is doubly so for Advanced Practice Nurses such as Certified Nurse Anesthetists and Nurse Practitioners. At a minimum both CRNA’s and Nurse Practitioner’s will be precluded from practicing in their respective fields for one year. Moreover, the TPAPN participation term for Advanced Practice Nurses is three years instead of the two years applicable to regular RNs and LVNs. A CRNA or Nurse Practitioner’s enrollment in TPAPN is also clearly reportable to provider networks, malpractice insurers, hospitals, and other credentialing agencies and can affect their ability to successfully enter into agreements with these entities for years to come.
A CRNA or NP who has been referred to TPAPN, or the Board of Nursing, should know there are other potential options available and I strongly advise them to speak with an attorney well versed in representation before both TPAPN and the Texas Board of Nursing prior to making a final decision. At the outset, it may be possible for you and your attorney to refute or dispel the allegations underlying the TPAPN or Board referral. Even if this is not possible, a CRNA, Nurse Practitioner, or any other nurse is not eligible to participate in TPAPN or be placed on an equivalent Board Order unless they have a diagnosis of substance abuse or chemical dependency. Depending on the allegation and the nurse’s history of use or abuse of mind-altering substances, they might not carry such a diagnosis.
Some cases may even be eligible to be resolved through a referral to the Extended Evaluation Program (EEP), a sub-program operated by TPAPN which is meant to apply to nurses who may have some history indicating an issue with drugs or alcohol but who do not carry a DSM-IV diagnosis of substance abuse or chemical dependency. A nurse in EEP is only required to verify their sobriety through one year of negative random drug screening. It does not involve any restrictions on their scope of practice or, in the case of Nurse Practitioner’s, their prescribing authority. Moreover, a nurse’s participation in EEP is confidential, not a part of the public record, and is not disclosable on credentialing and other similar applications. Furthermore, participation in EEP is not considered to be discipline under the Nursing Practice Act.
A CRNA or Nurse Practitioner who is being asked to enroll in TPAPN and who thinks this is not an appropriate route should explore their options prior to making a decision which will dramatically affect their ability to practice as an APN. The unfortunate truth is that many nurses are in TPAPN when they shouldn’t be, likely because they felt they had no other choice. Even more tragically, it is often these nurses who have the most problem complying with their participation agreement as an individual who is in a treatment program but who don’t belong there is more likely to not give sufficient attention to remaining in compliance. Completing 90 Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings in 90 days is hard enough for someone who genuinely belongs in and can benefit from AA. It is especially difficult for someone who does not. If you are in such a situation, I emphatically suggest that you talk to an attorney and weigh your options prior to making a final decision.
Recently I have represented several nurses before the Texas Board of Nursing who were being pursued by Board Staff for allegations for which they had already been acquitted by the criminal justice system. As one would expect, this quasi-double jeopardy is extremely frustrating to the nurse. Despite already having hired a criminal lawyer and clearing their name in criminal court, they must now hire a license defense attorney to do the same thing before the Board of Nursing.
The most recent example, involved a case where the nurse had been accused of an inappropriate touching by a ten year old girl. The girl claimed that she had awaken at a sleep over at the client’s house to discover the nurse touching her; however, there were several inconsistencies with the girl’s testimony and it later came out that she was friends with another young girl who had made the exact same allegation (down to every detail) against my client several years prior but had subsequently admitted to her mother that she had made it up.
At the close of the nurse’s criminal trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Moreover, Child Protective Services had conducted their own investigation into the matter and determined that nothing had occurred. Yet, despite his acquittal and the negative finding by Child Protective Services, the Texas Board of Nursing decided to pursue their own disciplinary action against my client, seeking the revocation of his nursing license.
Thankfully, my firm was able to enforce the expunction order which had previously been entered by the criminal court to prevent the Board from using second-hand records from that trial to prove their case. Instead, the Board of Nursing was forced to bring the girl to testify in person at a hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Based on conflicting testimony from our witnesses and several discrepancies between the girl’s original outcry and her testimony at the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge concluded that the Board of Nursing had not met their burden of proof and accordingly entered an opinion favorable to the nurse.
I understand that the Board has a mission to protect the public from bad nurses; nevertheless, at some point one has to think that enough is enough. A person should only have to clear their name so many times before it is reasonable for the Board to think twice about wasting state money to retry a licensee for the same conduct.
The underlying lesson is that simply because you received a not guilty verdict in criminal court or the District Attorney decided not to prosecute, you are not shielded from a licensure action by the Texas Board of Nursing. They frequently subject a nurse licensee to yet another legal action where they are forced to again clear their name or face severe restrictions on, or even termination, of their livelihood. If you are facing such a situation with the Texas Board of Nursing, I highly recommend that you contact a seasoned administrative attorney with experience before the Texas Board of Nursing and the State Office of Administrative Hearings as otherwise you could be risking your license.
The Texas Board of Nursing continues to use tactics which arguably violate and abuse the due process protections guaranteed Texas nurses under the Federal and Texas State Constitutions. The Board’s tactics can put your employment and reputation in jeopardy without any opportunity to defend yourself.
This abuse occurs through the Board’s filing of formal charges without the corresponding docketing of those charges at the State Office of Administrative Hearings, thereby preventing licensees from either clearing their name or achieving a final resolution. To illustrate how the BON is strong-arming nurses, we must understand how a complaint about a nurse works its way through the administrative system to a potential hearing.
Complaints are submitted to the BON in writing and contain information about the nurse and of the pertinent facts or conduct. 22 Tex. Admin. Code § 213.13(a) (Tex. Bd. of Nursing, Complaint Investigation and Disposition). Not later than 30 days after a complaint is received, the BNE staff shall place a time line for completion, not to exceed one year (this is frequently ignored), in the investigative file and notify all parties of the complaint.
If a complaint is not resolved informally, the staff at the Texas Board of Nursing may commence disciplinary proceedings by filing formal charges. 22 TAC 213.15(a). This is where the BON can strong-arm unsuspecting RNs, LVNs and other licensed nurses: the formal charge will show up on your record when a potential or current employer attempts to verify your nursing license online at the Board of Nursing website. Furthermore, your employer or potential employer can call the Board of Nursing to discuss the content of the formal charge, oftentimes resulting in the employer’s decision to terminate the nurse or not hire a job applicant.
At this juncture, the nurse is stuck in limbo. His or her license has the stigma of a formal charge attached to it, often injuring the nurse’s ability to retain or find employment. This is where the time line for completion, mentioned above, comes into play. The time line is said not to exceed one year, but the Board of Nursing, while you have this formal charge attached to your license, can continually extend the timeline by “3-12” months. This can go well over the one year timeline proscribed by the statute. The Leichter Law Firm represents numerous nurses who have been in this situation for years and are still receiving letters informing them that the timeline for the investigation into their case has been extended another “3-12” months, with no apparent end in sight and no solution to the formal charges attached to their license.
How can this be resolved? Unfortunately, at present, the method for resolving such cases rests with the Texas Board of Nursing, and they have made no effort to reasonably settle these cases. The Texas Board of Nursing will often ask the nurse to simply sign an order agreeing to whatever punishment the Texas Board of Nursing deems appropriate. If the nurse refuses, the formal charges remain, and the case is supposed to move to an administrative hearing. But, the case cannot move from a formal charge to an administrative hearing unless the Texas Board of Nursing completes and files a Request to Docket Case form (and any other documents as required by statute) with the State Office of Administrative Hearings. For many licensees, the Texas Board of Nursing has simply not filed such a request.
Even a nurse who is represented by an attorney faces a tough situation in this scenario. In previous cases I have attempted to file discovery requests so that we could learn whether or not the Board can even prove up the case. In response, I always receive a curt letter from the Board stating that we have no present discovery rights as the case has not yet been docketed at SOAH. Thus the nurse remains in an arbitrary and bureaucratic nightmare where they are faced with formal charges and yet have no avenue to contest them until the Board deigns to set them at SOAH. The only possible recourse is file an action in District Court to try and compel the Board of Nursing to set the matters at SOAH, however, this is a costly and time-consuming process.
The real solution, of course, would be for the Board to change their policy and ensure that matters are docketed at SOAH within a reasonable time after the filing of formal charges. The Board has recently hired several new attorneys and this appears to have helped in the number of cases which are being set at SOAH. However, much room for improvement remains.
As most Texas nurses are now aware, the Texas Board of Nursing has for several years been performing criminal background checks as part of the renewal process. Each year a certain number of nurses who are up for renewal are required to submit fingerprints for an FBI background check. Those persons who lack any criminal history or who have previously disclosed that history to the Board need not worry. However, any licensees who do have an undisclosed criminal matter, even a minor one, should be concerned as the Board will likely use that record as an excuse to open an investigation and vigorously probe for any history or other indications that they feel indicates the person may lack fitness to practice nursing. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Board’s policy is that they will apply the same searching examination no matter how old or miniscule the criminal record.
As an example, I recently served as the attorney for the spouse of a former client, who is also a nurse. His issue was that he recently received a letter from a Board investigator stating that a twenty year old arrest for misdemeanor possession of marijuana had popped up during his renewal background check and that they were opening an investigation based on it. The charge was so old that my client didn’t even remember it which is also the reason he had not disclosed it the Board. The arrest in fact is so old that it predates his entrance into nursing school. Furthermore, the fact that only an arrest showed up indicates that the local prosecutor likely decided that the matter was so minor that it did not warrant prosecution. Yet, the Board’s desire to pursue this old charge meant that he had to contact me and I dutifully sent a not so nice letter to the Board telling them to back off.
Essentially the Board is wasting state tax dollars and subjecting veteran nurses to searching and oftentimes humiliating investigations on the basis of decades-old minor criminal offenses which likely committed before the person was even licensed. This goes well beyond any investigatory/disciplinary mandate extended by the state legislature when they granted the Board the authority to perform extensive background checks as part of the renewal process.
The Texas Board of Nursing’s functions do include the screening of new and current licensees for the kind of criminal record which could indicate that they lack fitness to practice nursing. However, this authority does not extend to investigations and possible disciplinary action based on minor offenses committed one or two decades ago with years of uninterrupted, problem-free practice in the interim. All this does is waste Board funding and misdirect their limited resources away from pursuing licensees with genuine and ongoing issues that raise real questions about their safe practice.
It is unfortunate that it often takes the hiring of an attorney to convince the Board to retreat from this type of baseless investigation since they should never occur in the first place. It has been my experience as an attorney in many of these cases that the Board is essentially using the old offense as an excuse to sift into the nurse’s record and try and find anything which can then be added on as firmer grounds for disciplinary action. For example, the nurse will frequently be asked to submit to a polygraph examination and post-test forensic evaluation. As I have discussed elsewhere in my blog the Board has no authority to request this and the nurse is full within their rights to simply refuse. The problem is the nurse is never informed of this right of refusal as submission to test is presented as a mandatory matter-of-course. Following this the Board will habitually make an inappropriate referral to TPAPN based on the original criminal matter and whatever admissions or suspicious responses result from the polygraph and interview. Again the foundation for all of this can be nothing more than a decades old DWI or possession charge.
Any nurse facing such a situation should consider hiring an attorney with experience representing clients before the Texas Board of Nursing. Unless they face a lawyer who knows what is and is not within their authority, the Board will likely try to initiate their own minor inquisition into your work and life history.
According to the Texas Board of Nursing’s Administrative Rules any nurse who has a diagnosis of chemical dependency or who otherwise has a history of abuse of controlled substances must demonstrate through “objective, verifiable evidence” that they have been sober for the past twelve months before they can be allowed to continue practicing licensed nursing. Title 22 Texas Administrative Code § 213.29 and the Board’s “Eligibility and Disciplinary Sanctions for Nurses with Substance Abuse, Misuse, Substance Dependency, or other Substance Use Disorder.” Normally, a nurse will establish that they have been sober throughout the past year by offering up AA logs, negative drug screens, an expert evaluation by an addiction specialist, and testimony from support group members, coworkers, and other intimate acquaintances. The idea is that with the evidence in hand, the Nursing Board will be able to verify the nurse’s sobriety date and see if this meets the twelve-month threshold.
Regrettably, it has been my recent experience serving as an attorney for such nurses that the Texas Board of Nursing is all too eager to brush aside such offers of proof and race to a full administrative hearing where they seek, contrary to their own rules and policy guidelines, a one-year suspension of the nurse’s license. In the cases I have been involved with, Texas Nursing Board Staff have repeatedly argued that a one year “timeout” is the appropriate sanction. Their idea is that during this year long timeout period, the licensee can work on their recovery and accumulate verifiable evidence of their sobriety. The problem is that the Board maintains that this timeout applies whether or not the nurse all ready has twelve months of verifiable sobriety. This is an incorrect statement of the law and is grossly unfair and unnecessary for nurses who have already been sober for a year or longer.
Another problem with the Board trial strategy in this area is that in the lead up time to a full SOAH hearing, they typically refuse to accept a chemically dependent nurse’s evidence of their sobriety date. In line with this any Agreed Order offered by the Board to settle the case fails to include a finding of fact setting forth the licensee’s date of sobriety. Inclusion of the sobriety date is absolutely crucial. This is the finding the nurse needs so that they can trace back twelve months of continuous sobriety. Otherwise when they later seek to lift any bar to their ability to actively practice nursing, the whole issue of when is their initial date of sobriety will have to be litigated all over again. The Board of Nursing will once again reject the nurse’s evidence of sobriety as insufficient and force the licensee to once again hire an attorney and take the matter all the way through to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.
Given the Texas Board of Nursing’s intransigence on this point, a nurse’s only real option is to pursue their case all the way to SOAH the first time around. This is the only way to have a finding of fact issued, in this case by an Administrative Law Judge, establishing their date of sobriety so that they will have a concrete point from which to trace their one-year of sobriety. This is a waste of taxpayer money and needlessly creates stress and drains the finances of the nurse. Simply put, the Board needs to follow their own administrative rules and policies.
As an attorney I usually advise my clients in this situation not to accept an Agreed Order that does not contain a sobriety date. Fighting the Board all the way through SOAH may be more expensive in the short run than simply signing the agreement, however, in the long run they will probably need to hire an attorney when they later attempt to reactive their license or lift any bar preventing them from practicing as a nurse. This is because they still need to establish their sobriety date so that they can demonstrate twelve months free from any chemical substances. Furthermore, if they decide to challenge the Board now, their current license will remain active and they will be able to continue working as a nurse while the disciplinary process runs its course. Because of the Board’s refusal to accept a sobriety date, by the time this process has run its course, the nurse may have already accumulated a full year of sobriety and therefore not suffer any down time.
I strongly recommend that any nurse’s facing this scenario contact an attorney with experience in administrative law and representing clients before the Texas Board of Nursing. They will be able to help you accumulate the evidence needed to demonstrate twelve months of continuous sobriety and be able to discuss with you the best options for protecting your license.
Mirroring general trends, the number of standard of care complaints against Texas nurses have risen dramatically in the past few years. All too often, the Board has chosen to punish nurses as individuals for what are actually institutional defects in the larger medical entities where they practice. This is particularly true for nurses serving marginalized patients such as those found in the prison system. Further, just as in cases of chemical dependency, unprofessional conduct, and criminal convictions, the danger to a nurse’s license is very real.
These cases can be especially frustrating for clients because the basic challenge is to their competency as a nurse. All too often the Board is willing to pin the blame on a nurse for situations in which there was no clear breach of the standard of care and in fact no evidence that the stated medical intervention would have made a difference. Modern nursing practice can be a hectic experience and unfortunately the Texas Nursing Board is often reluctant to accept that people do in fact die or get sicker in hospitals without a breach in the standard of care by a nurse. Additionally, the dynamic of these matters is such that the Board may investigate one nurse who then tries to shift blame, whether real or nonexistent, onto another.
The need for legal representation in such cases cannot be stressed enough. Effective advocacy in standard of care cases generally requires the parsing of voluminous medical records and the development of expert testimony on the applicable standard of care and whether or not it was met in that case. A nurse without an attorney will be placed in a decided disadvantage by the lack of their own expert who can independently challenge or verify the opinion of the Board of Nursing’s expert who, not too surprisingly, seems to always side with BON. Add to this the development of any applicable mitigation evidence, and most nurses will be left with a complex situation where an attorney on your side will be an immeasurable help. It’s not worth going it alone, as the Board generally feels they can do what they want to a nurse who doesn’t have a lawyer. Remember, your license and ability to provide for yourself and your family is at stake.
Currently I am representing a nursing client in a very serious case against the Texas Board of Nursing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. This matter has been progressing over a long period of time and in the interim my client’s RN license came up for renewal. She filled in the required forms and sent them in along with the mandatory fee. In response she received a letter from BON informing her that they would not renew her license at this time due to the unresolved status of her SOAH proceeding. They have continued to deny her renewal application and so we have been forced to ask for a second SOAH hearing on this issue. Essentially, the BON has made my client seek a separate and additional SOAH proceeding contesting their refusal to renew her license because of the still pending status of the original SOAH proceeding. This makes little sense as a matter of law or logic.
Under the Administrative Procedure Act, a nurse who timely files an application to renew their license ensures that their current license will remain in effect until the final resolution of any ongoing disciplinary proceeding. Texas Government Code § 2001.054. Thus until a final and negative result has emerged from the original SOAH case, the Board can not affect my client’s current nursing license. The only way they could would be through an emergency suspension procedure wherein they would be required to show that my client presents such an immediate and serious threat to the public that the suspension of her license is warranted without a prior hearing. Yet, they did not choose to use this procedure and so must wait till the conclusion of the disciplinary process.
The logic of this rule is clear; unless they can meet the higher showing required of an emergency suspension procedure, the BON cannot sanction a nurse until the contested case process has ended. They have to meet their burden of proof just as any other government agency must before they can take a person’s professional license.
The correct response to my client’s renewal application would have been to either grant it or to stay any decision until the resolution of the prior SOAH action, not an outright denial. Their denial has forced my client to seek, as outlined above, a second contested case proceeding on this issue. If she did not, then after thirty days the Board’s denial would become final meaning that even if she prevailed in the original proceeding her license would have lapsed in the meantime.
What makes it especially difficult to fathom the BON’s action as taken in good faith is the fact that even if they renewed the license, they would be free to suspend, revoke, or apply any other encumbrances to it if they prevail in the ongoing SOAH hearing. A renewed license would have no effect on the array of sanctions that could be opposed if they receive a favorable finding in the underlying proceeding.
The BON’s stance on this issue represents an abusive tactic that contravenes the relevant law and forces my client to suffer the additional emotional strain and attorney fees associated with her need to contest this new issue. This is lamentably another attempt by the Nursing Board to warp the administrative process and strong-arm a nurse when it looks like they might not get what they want.
All nurses who have been convicted or pled guilty or no contest to certain felony offenses should be aware that under a recent addition to the Nursing Practice Act, the Texas Nursing Board holds expanded authority to impose tough sanctions. Already a serious matter, an initial conviction for these offenses now carries additional consequences including mandatory revocation under certain conditions.
Chapter 301.4535 of the Texas Nursing Practice Act states that the Texas Board of Nursing must suspend or refuse to initially license any nurse / applicant who has been initially convicted of:
- Murder under § 19.02, capital murder under § 19.03, or manslaughter under § 19.04 of the Texas Penal Code;
- Kidnapping or unlawful restraint under § 20 of the Penal Code, when the offense was punished as a felony or state jail felony;
- Sexual Assault under § 22.011 of the Penal Code;
- Aggravated Sexual Assault under § 22.021
- Continuous sexual abuse of a young child or children under § 21.02, or indecency with a child under § 21.11 of the Penal Code;
- Aggravated Assault under Section 22.021 of the Penal Code:
- Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly injuring a child, elderly individual, or disabled individual under § 22.04 of the Penal Code;
- Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly abandoning or endangering a child under § 22.041 of the Penal Code;
- Aiding suicide under § 22.08 when the offense was punished as a state jail felony;
- An offense under § 25.07 of the Penal Code that was punished as a felony;
- An offense under § 25.071 of the Penal Code that was punished as a felony;
- An agreement to abduct a child from custody under § 25.031 of the Penal Code;
- The sale or purchase of a child under § 25.08 of the Penal Code;
- Robbery under § 29.02 of the Penal Code;
- Aggravated Robbery under § 29.03 of the Penal Code;
- An offense for which a defendant is required to register as a sex offender under Chapter 62 of the Code of Criminal Procedure; or
- An offense under the law of another state, federal law, or the Uniform Code of Military Justice that contains elements that are substantially similar to the elements of an offense listed in this subsection.
Note that the statute’s coverage includes licensees who have been convicted or pled guilty to one of the above offenses and who are then sentenced to deferred adjudication, community supervision, or probation. The basic message of §301.4535 is that the Board must and will automatically suspend an active license or refuse to initially license a nurse who has been initially convicted of one of the above specified offenses.
Over the objections of the Nursing Board, my law firm has successfully argued before the State Office of Administrative Hearings that when read in conjunction with the rest of the Nursing Practice Act, the Board’s own rules, and the Texas Occupations Code, § 301.4535 authorizes the Board to issue a stayed suspension as well as an enforced suspension. The former allows a licensee to continue practicing as a nurse while the latter does not. However, in order to effectively show that they qualify for a stayed order, a nurse will almost certainly need to present evidence and argument at an official hearing as to why, given the circumstances of their case, a stayed suspension would be appropriate. This involves the gathering and presentation of remedial evidence, possibly before an Administrative Law Judge in a trial-like setting. The eye of an experienced attorney is often able to pick out the kinds of beneficial remedial evidence which a layperson will miss. Further, a nurse’s right to such a hearing is contingent on their making a timely request for it. To ensure that you meet this deadline, consultation with an attorney may be advisable.
Another issue nurses who have been convicted of one of the listed offenses should be aware of is of the need to disclose this fact to the Board. Chapter 301.4535(b) holds that the failure of a nurse to disclose their felony conviction to the Board will result in the automatic revocation of their license, or a refusal to grant or renew a license, if the Board later learns that the conviction has been made final and it has not yet been 5 years since the nurse completed the probation or community supervision associated with the offense. Note that this subsection also applies to a plea of guilty or nolo contendre. Thus a failure to report can remove even the possibility of a stayed order.
Self-reporting facts that may lead to a disciplinary action can be a delicate matter, and I urge nurses to seek the advice of an attorney with experience before the Board when considering if and how to make such a disclosure. In the past my firm has represented numerous clients who have followed the mistaken advice of lawyers who are not familiar with the Board’s policies on full-disclosure for initial and renewal license applications. Self-reporting under § 301.4535(b) is all the more potentially hazardous given the serious minimum penalties involved.
Effective May 2, 2007, the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners (recently renamed to the Texas Board of Nursing) adopted new language regarding rules §§ 214 and 215 governing Professional and Vocational Nursing Education. First published in the Texas Register on March 9, 2007, the rule change was designed to eliminate any misunderstanding as to the necessary student-to-faculty ratio required for an approved nursing school. The rule makes clear that by using preceptors, the maximum student-to-faculty ratio can be increased to 1:24 and for teaching assistants with a faculty member in a clinical setting, a ratio of 1:15.
More recently on June 22, 2007, the Board adopted numerous changes regarding Continuing Education requirements. Rule § 216 was modified so that a contact hour for continuing education requirements purposes was extended from 50 to 60 minutes. The Rule was also changed such that it is no longer mandatory for RNs to take a CE course on Hepatitis C.
More significantly, the Board has changed its policy on auditing and investigating nurses for compliance with CE requirements. Previously Board rules provided for a random audit of licensees for fulfillment of CE provisions. If no evidence of compliance was provided by the nurse an investigation was initiated which could lead to possible disciplinary action. Under the rule change, all licensees are required to submit evidence of CE compliance when seeking license renewal and if insufficient proof is provided the Board will simply deny their renewal application. This new rule is found at § 216.11.
In March, the Board adopted several amendments to §§ 213.28 and 213.33, two rules related to practice and procedure in disciplinary matters. Language was added to § 213.33 outlining the specific qualifications required of a Board appointed psychologist or psychiatrist who is charged with evaluating a licensee’s present fitness to practice nursing (§ 213.33(e)). The new provisions also permit the Board to request that the licensee be examined by a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist to determine the likelihood of future violations by the nurse and the level of danger they pose to the public (§ 213.33(f)).
Rule § 213.28 pertaining to the licensure of persons with criminal convictions has received significant additions to what the Board considers to be a crime related to and affecting the practice of nursing. The new language expressly provides that the following types of offenses are now deemed to relate to the practice of nursing: 1) offenses against the person similar to those outlined in Title 5 of the Penal Code; 2) offenses against property including robbery, theft, and burglary; 3) offenses involving fraud and deception; 4) offenses involving lying and falsification; and 5) offenses involving the delivery, possession, manufacture, or use of, or dispensing or prescribing a controlled substance, dangerous drug, or mood-altering substance (§ 213.28(b)). Note that the modified rule retains all of its old contents; Subsection (d) has simply been inserted into the middle of the rule.
During the comment period for this rule, one party raised the objection that this new list of crimes held to relate to the practice of nursing merely piles another vague standard on top of the already amorphous rules on what constitutes unprofessional conduct. This amendment to § 213.28 simply provides another readily malleable means for the Nursing Board to discipline nurses for conduct over which they have no original jurisdiction by simply stating that it “relates to the practice of nursing.” The Board dismissed this valid criticism with the comment that it was authorized under the Nursing Practice Act to adopt such a rule and that other state licensing agencies have similar rules. Of course the obvious response to this argument is that other Board’s who have similarly vague rules on unprofessional conduct are vulnerable to precisely the same criticism and should also adopt clearer and more reasonable rules on what actually relates to the practice of their particular professional. No licensing Board should respond to public pressure to go after “bad” professionals by crafting an all-encompassing standard on what constitutes grounds for disciplinary action. This policy results in numerous nurses being subject to the high personal and financial costs of an investigation and disciplinary action who have engaged in what may perhaps be regrettable conduct that was, however, completely outside of their work and professional environment. In the long term such a stance can only erode the trust of both the public and Texas nurses with the Texas Board of Nursing
Recently, the Board of Nurse Examiners has adopted two practices that besides being unlawful under the Board’s own rules and the applicable law cause great harm to the licensee, one even rising to an effective denial of due process. The first such practice involves the prosecution of disciplinary actions by filing formal charges internally against the nurse, without first offering the licensee a chance to present their case at an informal conference. Not only is this skipping of the informal process contrary to Nursing Board Rules, it also places an undue burden on licensees who are needlessly forced to shoulder increased legal costs and emotional strain.
Similar to many Texas state licensing boards, the Board of Nurse Examiners has adopted rules mandating that a licensee facing a disciplinary action be given the opportunity to participate in an informal settlement conference before the filing of formal charges. Pursuant to the Nursing Practice and Administrative Procedure Acts, the Board Rule regarding informal proceedings expressly states that the licensee be given an “opportunity to be heard.” Title 2 Texas Administrative Code § 213.20(b). Presumably, the rationale for this rule is to ensure that licensees and Board Staff have a chance to informally present their respective cases and hopefully achieve an agreed settlement. Such a procedure avoids encumbering the State Office of Administrative Hearings with an additional case when the matter is open to informal settlement. Likewise the costs of a formal SOAH proceeding are far greater for both the Board and the licensee when compared to an informal conference.
Even more egregiously, the BNE has in some cases decided to file formal charges, broadcast such filing on their website for public viewing, but refuse or wait many months to also docket the case at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. This effectively places the matter in administrative limbo as under the APA until the case is docketed, SOAH does not gain jurisdiction over the matter. This means there will not be a date for a formal hearing, an Administrative Law Judge will not be appointed to preside over the case, and parties can not effectively file motions or perform discovery. Title 1 TAC § 155.9(e). Such practice clearly violates SOAH’s Rules of Procedure which explicitly mandate that an agency pursuing a contested case “shall” docket the case. § 155.9. Moreover, a failure to docket the case after the filing of formal charges also contravenes the APA’s stricture that parties are entitled to a hearing on the merits. Texas Government Code § 2001.051. Simply put, the Board of Nurse Examiners has no legal authority to pursue this policy -in fact such practice violates the rules.
Besides failing to adhere to the law, the Board’s contested hearing practice also deprives licensees of due process. This is not surprising given that the rules being ignored by the Board were designed precisely to safeguard this Constitutional guarantee. Whenever the Board files formal charges against a licensee they also provide public notice that such licensee faces pending charges of a disciplinary nature. This public notice, without the presence of an agreed order finding any actual wrong-doing by the licensee, in turn causes significant damage to a nurse’s current and future employment prospects, their finances, and their professional reputation. This is all the more so if the BNE has also chosen to wrongly circumvent the informal settlement process. If the licensee was able to actively pursue dismissal of the BNE’s allegations or whatever relief they are entitled to, public notice would not rise to the level of a due process problem. Yet absent the docketing of the case this issue comes into plain focus; the nurse is subjected to the stigma of pending formal charges without any chance to clear their name. The BNE’s heinous policy of filing formal charges against a licensee accusing them of violating the Nursing Practice Act and Board Rules without taking the next step of ensuring they will have their day in court not only violates applicable law, it also represents a deprivation of even the most basic semblance of due process.
Unfortunately, the BNE’s inexcusable trial tactics do not appear to be a merely temporary turn. I speculate that the Board’s current practices may be due to the sharp increase in licensure actions pursued by the Board in recent years and the resulting difficulty to an overburdened Board Staff. Since the surge in licensure actions has no signs of letting up in the near future, the BNE will likely continue its current tact. In truth, these two practices should be seen as linked: the Board shouldered with more disciplinary actions than it can handle starts to bypass informal conferences and instead goes straight to SOAH, but then in order to place the matter on the back-burner, the BNE avoids their responsibility to docket the case. Yet, regardless of the administrative difficulties they may be facing, the law says what it says and that is that a licensee is entitled to and “opportunity to be heard” in an informal hearing and then in a formal hearing on the merits once formal charges have been filed. If the Board truly is experiencing difficulty in handling their case load the correct recourse is to petition the state government for more resources. It is not an excuse to violate the clear mandates of state administrative law.
The Texas Board of Nurse Examiners (BNE) became the Texas Board of Nursing (BON) on September 1, 2007 pursuant to House Bill 2426 otherwise known as the Sunset Bill for the Board of Nurse Examiners.
This should have no effect on the public other than some confusion as to why the agency continues to use its old stationary and have not updated their website. Arguably they will use the old stationary until it runs out and when the State gets around to it I imagine the website will be tweaked to reflect the new agency title –Budget Constraints.
Email addresses for all Board Staff have changed to the email@example.com format, but old emails should be active as well for at least another month. Whatever are they going to do about business cards for all of the employees? Let’s hope they don’t wait until they run out to order new ones.
Unfortunately, the name change means no relief for nurses involved in the disciplinary process or for those seeking declaratory orders. Board Staff, Board Policies, The Nursing Practice Act and Board Rules remain –the agency just has a different title.
Established under Chapter 467 of the Health and Safety Code, TPAPN is a state-approved peer assistance program for Texas nurses. Operated by the Texas Nurses Association, TPAPN offers licensed nurses who are impaired by chemical dependency or mental illness an opportunity to undergo treatment and to safely return back to nursing practice -all under the protection of confidentiality.Available to Licensed Vocational and Registered Nurses who are diagnosed with substance abuse, chemical dependency, anxiety disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, program participation is an alternative to being reported to the Board of Nurse Examiners. A nurse suffering or who thinks they may be afflicted with one of the above diagnoses can either self-report or be referred to TPAPN by their employer. Completely voluntary, the program allows a nurse who has entered TPAPN to decline to participate or withdraw at any time. However, failure to adequately fulfill the TPAPN contract may result in a report being generated to the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners.
The self-proclaimed goal of the program is to provide an effective channel for recovery from chemical dependency and/or mental illness and effective re-integration back into nursing practice, thus protecting the public and providing incentives for professional accountability. Once in TPAPN, the nurse is assigned a case manager with extensive academic and clinical expertise in chemical dependency and psychiatric nursing. The program also includes advocates, LVN and RN volunteers who are there to support nurses throughout the program. Advocates create another layer of support for when a nurse’s case manager is not available.
The TPAPN program combines the roles of overseeing appropriate treatment, continuing care, self-help groups, practice restrictions, drug screens and monthly/quarterly reporting to ensure that nurses honor their TPAPN agreements. When a nurse self-reports or is referred to TPAPN, the program staff will make an initial assessment as to eligibility. During the first 90 days after treatment, program participants must attend daily self-help meetings such as those conducted by AA or NA and afterwards continue to attend at least four meetings per week. Nurses participating due to mental illness must follow the recommendations of their mental health professionals. Once the nurse is ready to return to work they must receive authorization by their case manager and will be subject to temporary practice restrictions. These restrictions include a requirement to be supervised by another nurse, being barred from access to controlled medications during the first six months of work, shifts limited to a maximum of twelve hours, no overtime, on-call, or night-shift assignments, and not accepting employment with temporary staffing agencies. Program participants must also both abstain from all alcohol and abusable drugs/medications and agree to provide random drug screens. The program runs for a minimum of two years.
Program staff must report to the nurse’s employer as well as the Board if the participant is non-compliant, has a positive drug screen, withdraws from the program, or moves out of state. If the nurse is a self-referral, the TPAPN staff will report the nurse to the Board only if they determine that the participant may pose an immediate threat to themselves or others.
The primary legal benefit of TPAPN is that participation is confidential and successful completion serves as an alternative to being reported to the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners and possible disciplinary action taken against the nurse’s license. The greater advantage of TPAPN participation, however, is the advocacy and assistance it offers to help guide impaired nurses back into control over their lives and the effective practice of their profession.
Although initial arrests and convictions for Driving While Intoxictated (DWI) will not ordinarily result in the imposition of a disciplinary sanction against a Texas Nurse, they often do give rise to a stressful and searching investigation by Staff of the Board of Nurse Examiners. This result is due to, on the one hand, the legal fact that under the Nursing Practice Act, many DWI’s do not relate to the practice of nursing, and on the other, the practical reality of the Nursing Board’s zealous policing of what it deems unprofessional conduct (Texas Occupation Code § 301.452(b)(10). A knowledgeable attorney can best secure a positive outcome by ensuring that the correct standard is applied and not substituted by the Board’s personal opinion(s) on what constitutes unprofessional or dishonorable conduct.
Under the Nursing Practice Act the Board can take disciplinary action against a licensee if a nurse has been convicted or placed on deferred adjudication for either a felony or a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude. (Texas Occupation Code § 301.452(b)(3)). An individual’s first two DWI’s are misdemeanors under the Texas Penal Code with the third and all those thereafter rising to felonies. From a legal standpoint, however, the Nursing Board’s broad discretion to take disciplinary action under the Nursing Practice Act is limited by the Texas Occupation Code’s prescription that discipline can only be imposed if the felony or misdemeanor “directly relates to the duties and responsibilities of the license holder.” (Texas Occupation Code § 53.021). In deciding this issue, the Board must weigh certain factors such as “the relationship of the crime to the purposes for requiring a license to engage in the occupation” and “the relationship of the crime to the ability, capacity, or fitness required to perform the duties and discharge the responsibilities of the licensed occupation.” (§ 53.022)
Board Staff’s policy, however, is to initiate an investigation into a nurse’s fitness and character if they have two or more criminal arrests for alcohol or drug related offenses in a lifetime. Board Staff does not seem to differentiate between arrests, deferred probations, regular probations, dismissals and final convictions with respect to opening an investigation. Once the investigation is initiated, Board Staff tries to force the nurse into a forensic psychological evaluation and polygraph test in an effort to determine if the license holder suffers from a DSM IV diagnosis of chemical abuse or dependence. Unfortunately, any other conduct or psychiatric disorder discovered through this battery of questionable discovery is then utilized to stipulate the nurse’s registration. Board Staff is successful in this less than admirable procedure as many nurses think they do not need or can not afford an attorney. Competent, experienced counsel however, can put a halt to this process and mount a successful defense against Board Staff’s position that all criminal conduct is unprofessional and therefore relates to the practice of nursing. Moreover, a knowledgeable attorney will know how to circumvent Board Staff’s insistence that the Nurse undergo an evaluation with a “Board Approved” expert and then submit to the rigors of a “qualifying” polygraph examination.
The Nursing Practice Act also requires that a license holder maintain good professional character throughout their licensure tenure. Any instance of professional misconduct that, in the Board’s opinion, poses a risk to the public or patients can subject a nurse to a disciplinary sanction. The broad reach of this amorphous standard is utilized by Board Staff in an effort to discipline a nurse where no other statute applies. The final legal force of this rule, however, is restricted by the requirement that criminal convictions must be shown to relate to the practice of nursing in order to sustain a disciplinary action.
An illustration of these two statutes in play can be seen in the 2006 case In the Matter of Charles Stephen Phillips. Here Board Staff initiated disciplinary action against Phillips due to his guilty plea to the felony offense of intoxication assault. Pursuant to the plea agreement Phillips’ prison sentence was probated and he was placed on felony community supervision. The defendant had struck and severely injured a pedestrian while driving home after playing pool and consuming numerous alcoholic beverages. Board Staff sought to revoke Phillips’ license on separate but related theories:
- That his felony conviction related to the practice of nursing; and
- For committing unprofessional or dishonorable conduct that is likely to deceive, defraud, or injure a patient or the public.
However, after reviewing the facts and testimony of several expert witnesses, the Administrative Law Judge recommended that Phillips should retain his nursing license due to the Board’s failure to connect the unique criminal conduct and the criminal offense of intoxication assault with the practice of nursing. Moreover, the Board’s own expert (a forensic psychologist) determined that the Phillips was not chemically dependent and in fact had quit drinking since the accident. Further, the Board’s position that such conduct was unprofessional and likely to injure the public or patient’s was not substantiated due to Board Staff’s failure to establish a nexus between the criminal offense of intoxication assault and the practice of nursing.
My law firm has tried numerous similar matters. In Debra Ross vs. Board of Nurse Examiners, Board Staff denied the Registered Nurse reinstatement application of Ms. Ross due to four convictions for Driving While Intoxicated. Moreover, Board Staff insisted Ms. Ross was ineligible for licensure because she was on felony probation. Ms. Ross appealed Board Staff’s decision and requested a hearing on the merits at the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) recommended that Ms. Ross’ license be reinstated, once again, because of the Nursing Board’s failure to sufficiently relate her conviction to the practice of nursing. In Fact the ALJ made light of Board Staff’s failure to relate Ms. Ross’ criminal conduct of DWI to the practice of nursing through opining:
“Even Assuming one can practice nursing while driving, there was no showing in this case that Applicant was ever intoxicated while practicing nursing, on duty or on call as a nurse. There was no factual nexus established between Applicant’s performance of her professional duties as a nurse and her DWI arrests. Further, the record contains ample, persuasive evidence of her current sobriety."
These cases show that, as a legal matter, many DWI’s will not relate to the practice of nursing: However -this is not always the case. If, for example, a nurse is arrested while coming to or from work or is found intoxicated sufficiently close to their time on duty or on call, this could very well be found to relate to the practice of nursing and result in the discipline of the nurse’s license. Likewise, a finding of alcohol abuse / dependency following an arrest could result in a sanction. This frequently occurs as a result of the pre-trial services and assessment / evaluation process or due to the criminal defense attorney recommending alcohol treatment in an effort to obtain a better plea offer. Evidence of treatment participation is considered by Board Staff as prima facie evidence of a DSM IV diagnosis of chemical abuse or dependence. Criminal defense attorneys would be wise to seek the advice of an experienced administrative law attorney prior to advising a client as to the ramifications of defense strategy and plea bargains on their Client's professional registrations / licenses.
The Texas Administrative Procedure Act (APA) offers a ready incentive for a licensee such as a doctor or nurse to seek prompt renewal of their license if they face or expect to face a disciplinary action before their respective state licensing board. Chapter 2001.054 of the Texas Government Code (The Administrative Procedure Act) provides a special rule when the professional’s license renewal is contested by the applicable administrative agency and such agency is required to provide timely notice and an opportunity to be heard, two conditions that apply to virtually every disciplinary action. When such a licensee applies for renewal, their existing license automatically remains in effect until their application has been finally determined by the state agency. Further, if the state agency decides to deny or limit the terms of the new license, the professional’s existing license does not expire until the last day for appealing the agency order or other date set by the reviewing court, whichever is later.Thus a doctor who expects the Texas Medical Board to deny the renewal of their professional license or to take other disciplinary action against them should timely apply as they will still retain and be able to practice under their existing license. The same situation applies to a nurse facing disciplinary action by the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners, an optometrist in front of the Texas Optometry Board, a dentist before the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners, and other licensed medical and non-medical professionals.
A licensed professional who fails to seek timely application for renewal loses this guaranteed extension of their existing license. Moreover, once an application is not timely made per the APA, agency rule will dictate the matter and any leverage once afforded to the licensee by a timely application for renewal is lost. Finally, if a licensee is in the midst of a disciplinary investigation it is imperative that they renew their license timely as a failure to do so might allow the agency to impose restrictions against or tacitly deny the re-registration.
The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 55, Article 55.04 forbids a State Agency from using, questioning an individual about, or in any way releasing information about an arrest that has been expunged pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 55. Moreover, Tex. Code Crim. Proc. § 55.03 provides that the effect of an Expunction Order in a licensure disciplinary proceeding, including the application process, allows for the individual to deny the arrest and the existence of the Order of Expunction. However, the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners (BNE) requires that a licensed nurse or nursing license applicant disclose the existence of the arrest on renewals and initial license applications. It is undetermined if they seek to utilize these arrests against the nurse in a disciplinary proceeding or as a basis for the denial of a license. However, the mere thought that the registration renewals or applications ask about information which if utilized would subject members of Board Staff to criminal sanctions raises a few alarming concerns.
Clearly a great number of people are under the false impression that a dismissal and an order of expunction are one and the same. Perhaps Board Staff is attempting to make sure that the arrest has truly been expunged. Unfortunately, this violates the spirit of the expunction statute as the effect of the expunction allows an individual the right to deny the arrest and the existence of the expunction order.
Moreover, the Board of Nurse Examiners can clearly discipline a nurse’s license or deny an application for failing to completely and fully disclose discoverable criminal history. They can not however, use an expunged offense (or the conduct behind the offense) as a basis for discipline or denial. In the last several years my law firm has expunged several arrests for both Registered Nurses (RN’s) and Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN’s) and have always noticed the BNE in the Petition for Expunction. They have never contested the expunction or attempted to utilize the information.If a nurse finds themselves in a situation of uncertainty with respect to whether or not an arrest has been expunged or needs to be disclosed they should contact an attorney who is familiar with both criminal law & the administrative process. If the offense is truly expunged a nurse does not have to prove that it is. However, if it is not then it must be disclosed. Finally, oftentimes DPS and other agencies make mistakes so sometimes truly expunged arrests are not properly destroyed by the reporting entities. It is therefore imperative that a certified copy of the Order of Expunction be retained indefinitely.
The Board of Nurse Examiners for the State of Texas received authorization and funding from the legislature to undergo complete criminal history and background checks on every nurse in the State of Texas. Accordingly, every LVN and RN in Texas will be required to submit a fingerprint card to the BNE over the next ten years. The cards will be submitted to the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Saftey for verification and accuracy of the Nurse's identity and criminal history. Ten percent of nurses will be required to undergo this scrutiny per year until all licensees have been evaluated. This has created a marked rise in investigations and disciplinary orders. There are several inherent problems with this process however, and nurses should seek advice from an experienced lawyer before they accept a proposed disciplinary sanction that will mar their record indefinitely.
To begin, the BNE did not acquire jursidiction over deferred adjudications until September 1, 2005. Staff of the Board however, is investigating offenses that resulted in deferred adjudication probations and dismissals that are more than twenty years old. This week alone I received calls from two LVNs who had just such misdemeanor criminal records and were being investigated by the BNE. Board Staff, including the Attorneys, readily admit they did not and do not have substantive jurisdiction over the criminal history, but maintain they are concerned about the conduct or the psychiatric disorder that may be reflected by the offense and the behavior. The fact is both of these nurses have renewed their licenses for the last twenty (20) years and have never been required to reveal this history. Additionally, both have practiced nursing without incident during this period and each has had exceptional performance appraisals from all employers. Why then is the BNE delving into these issues when all of their investigators have such large case loads that they can not adequately work up a case? The answer is simple -Public Image.
A recent article published by the Fort Worth Star Telegraph entitled Nursing Board Sets High Standards describes Staff of the Board referring to public opinion concerning nurses. The Executive Director of the Board was quoted as saying: "Americans rate nurses at the top of the list of trusted professionals. And there's plenty of reason why". So is the BNE more concerned about the way they appear to the press and the public or ensuring there are enough quality nurses available to meet the demands of the workforce? Arguably, the stance and the approach suggest that public appearance and image is what is priority.
Recently I have had a flurry of client's who are being invesigated for alcohol related Class C offenses that are over a decade old. Staff of the Board maintains they are worried that the nurse may suffer from alcohol abuse or chemical dependency. What Board Staff fails to look at however, are the last ten years of a perfect working history, with no practice related errors. Board Staff would like to predicate a nurse's future on their remote past without due consideration given to recent history. This absurd infringement was taken to an extreme when a prospective Client was being investigated for an arrest for marijuana possesion that occurred overseas over thirty years ago. What is even more ludicrous is that no conviction ever was imposed and the country is now a war zone. I would like to see staff of the Board issue a subpoena to this war ridden country for a police report that is written in hyroglyphics. BNE lawyers and attorneys may be adequate trial lawyers, but any Administrative Law Judge would be hard pressed to admit such evidence given the numerous evidentiary and admissibility problems inherent with such a report.