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.