You've had to pay a high price to become a state licensed architect—in money, in time, and in study. You've invested time and money to earn an architectural degree from an accredited program. You've gained over 3700 hours of work experience to meet the Architectural Experience Program (AXP) requirements. And you've passed the Architect Registration Examination (ARE). Your professional license is now your most treasured possession because your entire livelihood hinges on it. If your license is threatened by a complaint or an allegation of misconduct, it can wreak havoc on your career and disrupt both your personal and professional life.
If you're currently facing an investigation into your architect's license, you're probably experiencing a wide range of emotions—anger, fear, uncertainty, etc. You're wondering what happens next and what becomes of your career in the worst-case scenario of having your license revoked. What can you do to save your license? Can you ever bounce back if it gets suspended or revoked?
To improve your chances of a more favorable outcome, you should never go through the licensing disciplinary process without a skilled attorney representing your interests. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is highly experienced in license defense cases in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Before you go through any licensing investigation or disciplinary hearing, you need to be informed about what can happen, what is at stake, and what you can do to rescue your career. For that reason, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following key information to help alleviate your concerns and give you the information you need to form a plan of action.
Who Do I Answer to as a Licensed Architect if Someone Files a Complaint?
Every state has its own licensing board that oversees licensing, administration, and discipline for architects who are licensed in that state. For instance, if you are licensed in New Jersey, you answer to the New Jersey State Board of Architects. If you're in Pennsylvania, it's the State Architects Licensure Board, and if in New York, it's the Office of the Professions under the NYS Education Department.
In addition, the state architectural licensing boards of all 50 states and five U.S. territories are all members of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), a nonprofit organization that facilitates licensure and helps set universal standards for licensing and discipline. Thus, while each state regulates its own licensed professionals, the standards for maintaining your license are fairly uniform, as are the disciplinary processes.
What offenses can cause me to lose my architect's license?
In addition to practicing standards set by the NCARB, each state has its own specific rules regarding infractions that can cause an architect to face disciplinary actions, such as losing their license. As a general rule, however, most offenses that result in license revocation have something to do with either breaking the public trust or breaking faith with the state licensing board—or both. A few examples of allegations that can cost you your architect's license include:
- Fraud. Any type of deceptive practice can be grounds for losing your architect's license—from obtaining your architect's license fraudulently to defrauding your clients.
- Acting outside the scope of your license. If your license limits you to certain actions and you misrepresent yourself by stepping outside those boundaries professionally, you could lose your license.
- Gross incompetence or negligence. Buildings must be designed to certain safety standards. Serious mistakes in your work or willfully “cutting corners” could be grounds for serious discipline.
- Criminal convictions. Being convicted of certain crimes can jeopardize your license, especially crimes of an ethical nature. Each state holds its own standards on this issue; in some states, a felony conviction will disqualify you from being an architect, while in other states, a conviction of any kind could be grounds for revoking your license.
- Substance abuse. If you have an addiction to alcohol or drugs, your license could be in jeopardy—even more so if you're found to be working while impaired.
- False certification. In some states (New York, for example), willfully making a false certification to the state for tax rebate purposes is considered defrauding the state and can cost you your license.
- Permitting an unlicensed person to perform licensed work. If you allow a colleague or employee under your authority to perform architectural work without being duly licensed, you're the one who may pay the price—by surrendering your own license.
Are there other penalties I could face besides losing my architect's license?
Yes. State licensing boards don't automatically revoke licenses for the slightest offense. Depending on the severity of the complaint, the available evidence, and other circumstances, you may face other disciplinary actions while still being allowed to keep your license. Common examples might include:
- License suspension. You may be prohibited from working as an architect for a certain period of time.
- Fines. The board may fine you a certain amount of money.
- Probation or restrictions on license. You may be temporarily or permanently prohibited from doing certain kinds of work, or you may be put on probation.
- Continuing education requirements. If the violation was due to a gap in your training, the board may require you to take remedial courses or continuing education to fill the gap.
- Formal reprimand or censure. The board may issue a written reprimand that appears on your public record.
Can these disciplinary actions negatively affect me even though I'm still licensed?
Yes, they can. Most actions taken by the state licensing board become a matter of public record, which means any prospective employer or client can look up your license and see whether you have any disciplinary marks. These marks can have an impact on whether a firm or a client decides to hire you. In addition, the NCARB maintains its own database of disciplinary actions from all 55 licensing boards across the country in addition to any actions it takes on its own. That means a single disciplinary mark on your record—even as little as a reprimand—can follow you state to state should you attempt to be licensed in another state.
What is the disciplinary process for architects?
Each state regulatory board sets up its own procedures for administering discipline for licensed professionals under its jurisdiction. The process may be slightly different for an architect in New Jersey than it is for Pennsylvania or New York. However, if you are facing possible discipline or loss of license, you can expect the process to follow a similar path to what is described below:
- Complaint. Almost every disciplinary action begins with a complaint filed with the state regulatory board. This complaint could be filed by a client, a colleague, an employee, etc.
- Investigation. The board will conduct an investigation of the complaint to determine whether the complaint has merit. This may involve interviewing witnesses, subpoenas of documentation, and a request for a formal response from you regarding the complaint filed against you.
- Consent orders/settlement letter. If the board finds significant evidence of misconduct during its investigation, it may make an offer to you in an attempt to avoid going through the tedious process of a formal hearing—typically in the form of a consent order/decree or a settlement offer.
- Formal hearing. If the matter cannot be resolved through settlement or consent order, the board may conduct a formal hearing regarding the complaint against you. This process takes place either in front of the board itself or in front of an Administrative Law Judge, depending on the laws of the state. The evidence against you is presented, and you have the opportunity to make a defense.
- Disciplinary action. After the hearing, the judge or the board makes a final ruling as to whether misconduct occurred and imposes a penalty it deems appropriate.
What is a consent order?
A consent order (sometimes called a consent decree) is a negotiated, legally binding agreement with the licensing board in which you agree to submit to a prescribed disciplinary action, typically in return for not losing your license entirely, or at least having the opportunity to have the license reinstated. A consent order is negotiated in lieu of going through a formal investigation, not unlike a plea deal for a criminal offense eliminates the need to go to trial.
What is a settlement?
A settlement is another alternative to help you avoid going through a formal disciplinary hearing. Similar to the consent order, the board will ask you to agree to certain concessions and disciplinary actions. However, unlike the consent order, a settlement agreement is not a court order, but an agreement between you and the board.
Should I agree to a consent order or settlement if it is offered?
That depends on the circumstances. In a situation where it is apparent the board has enough evidence to move against you in a formal hearing, a consent order or settlement may be a better alternative, especially if it avoids having your architect's license permanently revoked. However, if the evidence is scant or if you believe you have enough evidence to clear your name and have the complaint dismissed, a consent order or settlement might result in a mark on your record that could have been avoided. Always consult with an experienced professional license attorney before making a decision to accept a settlement or a consent order.
What happens if I don't respond to the complaint or cooperate with the investigation?
By applying to the state board to become a licensed architect in that state, you're making an implied agreement to cooperate with any investigation regarding your conduct. You have the right to defend against any and all complaints, and you certainly have the right to defer all questions to your attorney. But if you ignore the complaint entirely, the board is more likely to rule against you summarily. In short, your refusal to cooperate is a nearly sure-fire way to have your architect's license suspended or revoked.
Am I allowed to continue working as an architect during an ongoing investigation?
In most situations, yes. Unless the board issues a temporary suspension of your license pending the investigation, you are allowed to continue with your employment or running your architectural firm while the investigation continues—especially if you signal a willingness to cooperate.
Do I have to tell my employer or my clients that my architect's license is under investigation?
You have no legal obligation to inform your clients or your employer of any investigation. However, if you work for an architectural firm as a licensed architect, that firm may require you to inform them of any possible disciplinary action as part of your contractual agreement with them. If so, failing to inform them could be grounds for termination. Be sure to check the terms of your contract to make sure you're in compliance with the firm's rules.
How should I respond to people if they ask about the investigation?
If word gets out that you're being investigated for a complaint, you may encounter questions for clients or colleagues. If so, our advice is that you be honest without being detailed. Acknowledge that an investigation is ongoing but that you are cooperating with the board and intend to continue providing quality work until the matter is resolved. Avoid the temptation to defend yourself or tell “your side” of the story. At best, doing so could deter people from wanting to work with you, and at worst, it could work against you in the investigation.
Am I required to have an attorney if my architect's license is in jeopardy? Can I try to resolve the complaint with the board on my own?
You have the right to try and settle the matter with the state licensing board on your own, and you're not required to have an attorney—however, it's highly recommended that you do. Here's why:
- Any investigation into a complaint about your professional license is a legal matter. Your architect's license is an agreement with the state, so any alleged violation of that agreement constitutes a legal matter. When you're in legal trouble, it makes sense to hire a legal expert to help you navigate the process.
- The state licensing board is not your friend. It is not there to protect you, but to regulate you and to keep you accountable. The moment a complaint is filed against you, the board's job is to protect the public interest, not you. Attempting to work directly with the board could backfire on you because they aren't there to “work something out” with you. Their job is to determine if you did something wrong and to penalize you if you did. Having an attorney represent you in such matters can reduce your risk of a more severe penalty.
- You are at a disadvantage by default. The state licensing board for architects has plenty of experience in disciplinary proceedings. Chances are you don't have any experience at all beyond this complaint. That puts you at an immediate disadvantage because the board has the “home field” advantage. Hiring a legal expert helps to put you back onto equal footing so you can defend yourself more effectively.
Do I still need an attorney if my alleged offenses are minor ones?
Yes, it's still in your best interests to hire an attorney—for two important reasons:
- You can't think of any offense as “minor.” Even if the board doesn't typically suspend or revoke an architect's license for this type of allegation, assuming they won't in your case could be a disastrous mistake. Assume they have the right to revoke your license for any complaint—because they typically do. Don't make the mistake of underestimating the need for proper legal defense.
- Hiring an attorney improves your chances for lesser penalties or dismissal of the complaint. Even so-called “minor” penalties may become part of your permanent professional record, damaging your credibility with the public. A good license defense attorney may be able to negotiate for lesser penalties, or in many cases, for a full dismissal of the complaint, which would keep your record clean.
If an investigator from the licensing board comes to my home or place of business, do I have to give them entrance or answer their questions?
No, you don't—and you shouldn't unless your attorney is present. Investigators sometimes conduct unannounced visits for the purpose of throwing you off guard and giving away your advantage. Anything you say or do in such cases to “cooperate” with the investigator could be used as evidence against you. You can be cooperative, but you also have rights. If an investigator comes knocking, be courteous but do not engage them, and do not let them in. Instead, ask for their contact information and notify them that your attorney will call them.
How do I choose an attorney to defend my architect's license?
Anyone who is licensed to practice law in your state can technically represent you, but that doesn't mean they will be effective. Since the law is a vast field, most attorneys concentrate their focus on certain parts of the law. For that reason, you should look for an attorney who has specific experience and a good track record in administrative law and professional license defense cases.
What can a license defense attorney do to help me?
Generally speaking, having an experienced attorney improves your chances of a more lenient or positive outcome in your case—and in many cases, the attorney can even prevent you from sustaining any professional damage. A good attorney will:
- Conduct an evaluation of the complaint and the circumstances and let you know what is at stake;
- Help you understand your options and formulate a strategy for defending against the complaint;
- Help you compile evidence and procure witnesses to bolster your defense;
- Act as your official legal representative in all interactions with the state licensing board;
- Negotiate with the board at multiple stages of the disciplinary process to get you the best possible resolution—including, if possible, dismissal of the complaint; and
- Defend you vigorously in a formal hearing, if necessary.
Can an attorney help me get my architect's license reinstated if it has already been revoked?
Yes. Most states have provisions in place for reinstatement of a professional license that has been revoked, and an attorney can help facilitate that process to ensure you meet the requirements for reinstatement. These requirements may include:
- Formally requesting reinstatement
- Submitting a written explanation of why you're asking for reinstatement and why the board should consider it
- Paying any applicable fees or fines
- Submitting a work history of all jobs you worked held while your license was inactive
- Demonstrating that you've met any predetermined requirements for reinstatement (for example, if you were required to take continuing education as part of a consent order)
- Agreeing to any action plan prescribed by the board in advance of your reinstatement
During this whole process, an experienced professional licensing attorney can help you create a compelling case for reinstatement, coordinate your paperwork, make sure your fees are paid, and follow up with the licensing board throughout the process until your license is officially reinstated.
I just found out a complaint was filed against me with the board. How soon should I think about hiring an attorney?
As soon as possible. Some people make the mistake of assuming they don't need an attorney unless the investigation moves into a formal hearing. The problem with that assumption is that by the time the hearing takes place, the board has already amassed significant evidence to recommend disciplinary action against you—so you're truly on the defensive at that point. By hiring an attorney early in the process, you may have multiple opportunities along the way to negotiate for lesser penalties or a dismissal of the complaint, possibly eliminating the need for a formal hearing at all. The sooner an attorney gets involved on your behalf, the better your chances of coming out of this process unscathed.
Having your architect's license suspended or revoked can be utterly devastating for your career prospects, not to mention the years of work and effort that are wasted in the process. If you have been accused of wrongdoing, don't take unnecessary chances with your future. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has many years of proven experience in helping architects and other professionals navigate the disciplinary process successfully while keeping their licenses intact. If you are a licensed architect in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or New York, and your license is in jeopardy, take steps now to protect your career. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 to discuss your case and your options.