It can hit you seemingly out of nowhere. You're working as a licensed professional (be it a doctor, nurse, accountant, real estate broker, etc.), conducting your business and serving your patients or clients, when out of the blue, you get notified that you are under investigation for alleged misconduct or violations of your license. Your license is now in jeopardy, and your career is in question. The person who filed the complaint? “Anonymous.”
Being licensed by the state to perform a professional service is a public trust. The downside to the process is that anyone can file a complaint against you for any reason, whether or not the allegations are true—and they don't have to give their name.
It may seem unfair, but in the eyes of the state licensing board, it's necessary. It helps keep its licensed professionals accountable and on their best behavior, and the ability to file anonymously lets the public file complaints without fear of retribution. At the same time, it can open up a world of uncertainty and inconvenience for you, the licensed professional—whether or not the complaints have any merit. The complainant could be a patient who got offended by an offhand remark that you don't even remember making. It could be a client who caught you on an exceptionally bad day. Or it could be a jealous colleague deliberately trying to sabotage you and make our professional life miserable. Whatever the case, you now feel put on the defensive and distracted from your work because you now have to respond to the complaint and convince the board not to penalize, suspend, or revoke your license. How do you respond?
When your professional license is at risk for any reason, regardless of the legitimacy of the complaint or who filed it, you don't want to take unnecessary risks with your career. You need an attorney who knows how to deal with licensing boards in your state to help set things right so you can go about your business. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended many licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who find themselves in hot water with the licensing boards. Knowledge is power, so the Lento Law Firm has provided the following critical information to help you know how to contextualize an anonymous complaint and what steps to take to protect your career.
What types of violations might be reported anonymously?
Any member of the public can easily file a complaint against you for almost any reason—and the board has a legal obligation to follow up on every complaint. However, not every complaint will result in a prolonged investigation. The board will first review the complaint to see if it refers to a legitimate violation or act of misconduct and if they have jurisdiction to pursue it. If they don't find a valid concern—or one that they have authority to investigate—they will dismiss the complaint. (For example, you're probably not going to get in trouble with the board if someone complains because they didn't like what you were wearing the day they came in. In some cases where the complaint is obviously baseless, you may not even be notified that the complaint was filed.)
That said, some people file legitimate complaints anonymously because their grievances are sensitive and/or they fear retribution—and if the board deems the complaint worthy of a second look, they will launch an investigation. Examples of potentially serious anonymous complaints may include:
- Sexual misconduct. Many sexual harassment or assault claims may be filed anonymously, especially if the complainant is the alleged victim, due to the sensitivity of the issue and their own embarrassment levels. Sexual assault, sexual harassment, or inappropriate relationships with patients/clients—all of these are serious allegations that may result in license suspension or revocation.
- Fraud. Any type of fraudulent behavior could result in losing your license, whether it's scamming customers directly, filing fraudulent insurance claims, committing SEC violations, etc. These complaints may also be filed anonymously.
- Substance abuse/addiction. If a client/patient or someone you work with has concerns about your alcohol or drug use—especially if it is impairing you on the job—they may report it anonymously out of fear of confronting you directly with it.
- Gross incompetence or negligence. Failing to uphold the basic standards of performance for your profession can be considered incompetence. So can acts of negligence that endanger your customers, clients, patients, or colleagues. These allegations are frequently reported anonymously.
Will the state licensing board suspend or revoke my license strictly on the word of an anonymous complaint?
No. For the board to take any disciplinary action against you—including and up to suspending or revoking your license—they must find corroborating evidence to validate the complaint, which is why they conduct an investigation. If the anonymous complaint is bogus, you can assume the board will find nothing to corroborate the complaint, and the complaint will ultimately be dismissed.
If the licensing board finds no evidence to support an anonymous complaint but instead finds another violation during their investigation, can they still take action against me?
Yes. If the investigation fails to validate the original complaint but the board finds other signs of violations or wrongdoing in the meantime, they may dismiss the original complaint but still pursue disciplinary action based on the other issues they discovered. Thus, it's possible to have someone file a bogus complaint against you but still end up facing license suspension over something else.
What steps will the licensing board take once they receive an anonymous complaint? What can I expect to happen?
Every state and every licensing board establishes its own procedures for investigating and disciplining license violations—but in most cases, the process is similar to the following:
- Initial review. The licensing board will conduct an initial review of the complaint and the allegations to determine whether a) the complaint points to a legitimate violation of the rules, and b) the complaint falls within the board's scope of jurisdiction.
- Investigation. The board will investigate the complaint to determine whether the allegations have merit. The investigation may include the subpoena of records questioning witnesses, and asking you to provide a written response to the complaint.
- Inquiry. In some cases, the board may ask you to appear at an informal inquiry to answer some questions person during the investigative process.
- Consent order. If the investigation turns up sufficient evidence to support the complaint, the licensing board may offer to negotiate a consent order with you. A consent order is an agreement between the state, the licensing board, and you, in which you agree to submit voluntarily to prescribed sanctions or penalties as an alternative to going into a formal hearing.
- Formal hearing. If a consent order cannot be agreed upon, or if the allegations are particularly egregious, the board will then call for a formal hearing, which may take place either in front of the licensing board itself or in front of an Administrative Law Judge, depending on your state regulations and the board itself. This is an important legal hearing that is best attended with legal representation.
- Final determination and action. After the hearing, the board or judge will make a final determination whether to impose disciplinary action on your license and what that penalty will be.
- Appeal. You have the right to appeal an adverse decision to the appellate courts in your state. This may be a good option if you have reason to believe the board acted arbitrarily, penalized you with insufficient evidence, or committed serious procedural errors that affected the outcome.
Bear in mind that this series of steps is not set in stone. At any point, the board may decide that the complaint is without sufficient merit, at which point the complaint will be dismissed with no further action. Hiring a professional license attorney early in the process gives you an important voice in this process.
If the licensing board chooses not to revoke my license over the anonymous complaint, could they take other disciplinary actions?
Yes. Many complaints do not result in a licensed professional losing their license. Depending on the circumstances, the evidence, and the severity of the alleged offense, the board may take any of the following actions as an alternative to revoking your license:
- Suspension. The board may suspend your license for a specified or indefinite period of time, subject to possible reinstatement.
- License restriction. The board restricts the scope of your license to prohibit you from performing certain functions.
- Fines. The board may impose a monetary fine.
- Imposing conditions. The board may set certain conditions in place as a requirement for keeping your license active—for example, they may ask you to undergo treatment for a substance abuse problem or take continuing education classes to fill a knowledge gap.
- Probation. The board may monitor your progress for a specified length of time to ensure you're fulfilling the requirements for keeping your license active.
- Supervision. The board may require you to operate under the watchful eye of another licensed professional.
- Reprimand. In cases with minor repercussions, the board may opt simply to issue a verbal or written rebuke.
Could one of these lesser penalties still impact my career?
Yes. Most disciplinary actions against licensed professionals are a matter of public record, so any interested party can check your credentials and see whether you have any disciplinary marks. In some cases (not all), this may affect whether someone wants to hire you or work with you.
Will the person who filed the anonymous complaint be informed of the board's decision?
Typically not. When someone files an anonymous complaint, they basically waive the right to future involvement in the case—including learning the outcome. In many cases, the board is even unaware of their identity.
If someone files a bogus anonymous complaint against my license, can I sue them for defamation or slander if I learn their identity?
Absolutely not. Filing a complaint with the state licensing board (anonymous or not) is a protected activity. Even if the complaint is baseless, it is not slander or defamation because the complaint itself is filed within your system of accountability, not shouted to the public. If you attempt to sue someone for making a false accusation to your licensing board, your case will be thrown out, and you may even be required to pay the defendant's legal bills as a result. The best you can do is defend against the complaint itself. If it is baseless, it will likely be dismissed with no long-term harm to your career.
Do I have any advantages in defending against an anonymous complaint?
From a tactical standpoint, yes. Once someone files a complaint anonymously, they have essentially completed their role in the case. They cannot say anything further, they cannot clarify their story, and they won't be interviewed in the investigation. That means you basically have an open field to present your defense against the charges, which increases your chances of a favorable outcome—especially if there is no evidence to corroborate the accusation.
Why do I need an attorney to help defend against an anonymous complaint if the complaint is unfounded? Can't I resolve the matter myself?
You always have the right to represent yourself in a license investigation or disciplinary hearing, but you may be taking a huge risk with your career if you do. Here's why:
- A license investigation is a legal issue. Your professional license represents a legal agreement with the state, and when you're accused of wrongdoing, the investigation becomes a legal matter. You have a much better advantage by hiring a legal expert to represent you in a legal proceeding.
- You are starting out at a disadvantage. Regardless of your guilt or innocence, or how hard the board tries to be impartial, the fact is the board has more experience with the disciplinary process than you do. This essentially gives them the “home field” advantage. Hiring an attorney helps you start on a more equal footing.
- The licensing board is not your friend. The board's job is to protect the public, not represent your interests to the public. Once a complaint is filed, and they decide to investigate, the board is looking for a reason to validate the complaint and discipline you. You can't expect to resolve the matter informally on your own—in fact, that tactic can be used against you. Hiring an experienced professional license attorney gives you a better shot at overcoming the allegations.
What will a professional license defense attorney do to help me?
From the moment you hire a good professional license defense attorney, your chances of a positive outcome increase exponentially. A good attorney will:
- Evaluate the complaint against you and the corroborating evidence (if any), and let you know what's at stake;
- Come up with a defense strategy that is most likely to achieve results;
- Gather evidence and witnesses on your behalf;
- Serve as your legal representative in all correspondence or meetings with the licensing board;
- Negotiate at multiple points for either a dismissal or reduced penalties, as the situation warrants; and
- Defend your license aggressively in a formal hearing, if needed.
In short, hiring a professional license defense attorney helps ensure your rights are protected and greatly improves your chances of keeping your license and saving your career.
Should I make any changes to my practice or workflow during a license investigation?
Not unless the board issues an interim suspension of your license (which is rare). Many complaints are resolved without any disruption to your practice, and there's plenty of reason for optimism that your license will remain intact. Don't feel like you have to alter any of your marketing or recruiting activities unless the licensing board tells you that you can no longer practice.
Am I required to disclose the details of the investigation to colleagues, coworkers, clients, patients, or employers?
Not in most situations. You have no legal obligation to disclose to anyone that you are under investigation. The only exception is if you work at a firm, agency, or facility where your work agreement requires you to disclose this information. If that clause exists in your contract and you fail to disclose an investigation, it could negatively impact your job.
Meanwhile, if word does get out about your investigation and someone asks you about it, a professional response would be to confirm the investigation without divulging too many details. Resist the urge to defend yourself. Instead, simply inform someone who asks that you are cooperating with the investigation and that you intend to keep providing excellent service in the meantime.
How soon should I contact an attorney after receiving notification of an anonymous complaint against my license?
As soon as possible. The sooner you hire an attorney, the more opportunities you'll have to negotiate for better terms or have the process dismissed. Waiting until there is a formal hearing to hire an attorney puts you immediately on the defensive, whereas if a skilled attorney gets involved right away, the chances increase that a formal hearing will not be needed.
Many anonymous complaints are without merit, but that doesn't mean they're not taken seriously. Don't assume that if someone didn't give their name that your professional license is safe. Once the licensing board launches its investigation, you could face career-threatening disciplinary action if the board finds a reason to impose it. Don't take unnecessary risks with your career, your reputation, or your livelihood. If you are licensed in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or New York, let Joseph D. Lento help you defend your professional license. Mr. Lento is highly experienced with the state licensing boards in these states, and his skill and expertise can make a huge difference in the outcome of your investigation. Take action now to protect yourself. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your options.