As a registered dietitian (RD) or a licensed dietitian-nutritionist (LDN), you've worked hard to get where you are today. You've had to go through extensive training, pass the CDR exam, and become licensed and/or certified to practice in your state. Your professional license is now your most prized possession because your entire livelihood hinges on it.
Unfortunately, allegations of wrongdoing (even unfounded) have the potential to put your professional license at risk. A simple misunderstanding, a lapse in judgment, or even a false accusation made out of spite could cause your career to hang in the balance. What do you do if you are the subject of a complaint? What is the process of disciplinary action? What are the steps you can take to protect your license and career?
Joseph D. Lento, a professional license defense attorney, is experienced in helping people in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are at risk of losing their licenses, including RDs and LDNs. The Lento Law Firm has compiled answers to some of your more pressing questions below, so you know what to expect and how to prepare if you receive notice that your license is under investigation.
Which Agency in My State Investigates License Violations?
Each state has its own process for regulating the licensing of nutritionists and dietitians, including invoking disciplinary action as they deem it necessary. The State of New Jersey only recently passed legislation requiring state licensure for dietitians and nutritionists, and it will eventually be regulated by a board commissioned by the Division of Consumer Affairs. In Pennsylvania, dietitians and nutritionists are licensed through the State Board of Nursing, and in New York, your certification is handled through the Office of the Professions.
What Offenses Could Cause Me To Lose My Dietitian or Nutritionist License?
Being licensed as a dietitian or nutritionist in your state is a matter of public trust since people are trusting you to help them make healthy dietary choices. Most offenses that would jeopardize your license involve violating that trust in some way, as well as violating policies and procedures set forth by the board. Some common offenses resulting in loss of licensure include:
- Substance abuse/addiction. If you have been observed as operating under the influence on the job, this could be grounds for losing your license, as well as other evidence of addiction.
- Sexual misconduct. This broad category could encompass unethical sexual advances toward clients, employees, or colleagues, as well as sexual harassment.
- Criminal convictions. Many states will disqualify you for holding a license if you're convicted of a crime--most notably, crimes of moral turpitude.
- Acting outside the scope of your license. For example, if you try to issue prescriptions when you're not authorized to do so (most states don't permit nutritionists to prescribe medication) or hiring an unlicensed person to do licensed work.
- Gross incompetence or negligence. If you make dietary recommendations that result in a patient's harm, for example, your license could be jeopardized.
What Is the Disciplinary Process for Licensed Dietitians or Nutritionists?
Although specific disciplinary processes vary by state, the majority of licensing boards implement a process similar to the following when initiating disciplinary actions:
- Complaint. The majority of disciplinary proceedings start with a formal complaint filed with the board--whether by a colleague, coworker, client, or another observer.
- Investigation. The licensing board will investigate the complaint to determine whether the allegations are credible. The board will likely ask you to respond in writing to the complaint; it may also interview witnesses and subpoena certain documents.
- Consent order. If the evidence against you is compelling, the board may offer to negotiate a consent order with you as an alternative to holding a formal hearing. In the consent decree, you will essentially admit to wrongdoing and voluntarily follow the board's recommendations for discipline.
- Formal hearing. If a consent order cannot be reached or the charges against you are especially severe, the matter will move to a formal hearing. This hearing may be held in front of the board or an Administrative Law Judge, depending on your state's rules.
- Final determination. This board will decide whether or not to impose any disciplinary action and what that action may be--up to and including revoking your dietitian/nutritionist's license.
The licensing board may decide at any stage of the disciplinary process that there isn't enough evidence to support the allegations, or they may opt for other reasons to dismiss the complaint without a formal hearing. Involving a professional license defense attorney can improve your chances of resolving the matter without formal disciplinary actions being taken.
Can the Licensing Board Inflict Lesser Penalties That Would Allow Me To Keep My License as a Dietitian/Nutritionist?
Yes. Revoking a license is the worst-case scenario, but it is not the only disciplinary option. Depending on the circumstances, your licensing board might opt for one of the following:
- License suspension. You might be prohibited from practice pending a review for possible reinstatement
- License restriction. You may be prohibited from doing certain practices based on your offenses
- Fines. The board may impose a monetary penalty
- Mandatory continuing education. If applicable, the board may impose continuing education requirements as a condition for keeping your license
- Reprimand. The board may issue a private or public warning
While these other penalties might be less severe than losing your license completely, they can still have a negative impact on your career. Most disciplinary actions become public record and are listed on searchable databases. If a client, colleague, or employer searches your professional license, they will be able to see whether you have been disciplined--which could affect their willingness to work with you.
Should I Accept a Consent Order if One Is Offered?
A consent order is a legally binding agreement between you and the state in which you're licensed in which you voluntarily admit to wrongdoing and agree to be disciplined. If the board has uncovered significant evidence of wrongdoing, this may be preferable to going through a formal hearing, especially if the disciplinary action allows you either to keep your license or provides conditions for reinstatement. However, a consent order will also appear in your public records the same as any other disciplinary action, so it still has the potential to damage your career. If you and your attorney can provide evidence to refute the complaint, or if there is a valid chance of having the complaint dismissed, a consent order might not be the best choice. Do not agree to a consent order without consulting an experienced professional license defense attorney.
An Investigator Has Come To My Home or Office Unannounced. Do I Have To Let Them in or Answer Their Questions?
No, you don't—and you shouldn't. The investigator is not there simply to fact-find but to look for reasons to present to the board to discipline you. You have an obligation to cooperate with any investigation, but you are not required to do anything to incriminate yourself. It is perfectly acceptable to politely deny the investigator access, obtain their contact information, and tell them your attorney will call them. By referring them to your legal representative, you are officially cooperating without damaging your chances of keeping your license.
Does Hiring an Attorney Make Me Look Guilty to the Licensing Board?
No, it doesn't. State licensing boards are accustomed to dealing with attorneys, and since a license investigation is technically a legal matter, they won't presume you are guilty if you hire an attorney to represent you. If anything, it sends them a message that you take the complaint seriously.
Why Should I Consider Hiring a Professional License Defense Attorney?
Many dietitians and nutritionists don't fully understand the implications of a complaint. Sometimes, they believe they can convince a board to accept their position by simply presenting their side. The reality is that the board doesn't exist to protect you but to protect the public. Once a complaint has been filed against you, their job is to pursue the complaint and look for evidence to support it—and they don't have the same burden of proof that a court trial would have. This puts you at an immediate disadvantage, so it's best to have an attorney who can defend your interests skillfully.
Another consideration is that your license is a legal agreement with the state allowing you to practice as a dietitian or nutritionist. When a complaint jeopardizes that license, it becomes a legal matter. It is in your best interest to have someone trained in the law to help you deal with this legal issue.
You have the right to represent yourself to the board without an attorney, but you are less likely to get a favorable outcome if you do so. Hiring a professional license attorney who knows how to deal with licensing boards immediately improves your prospects for keeping your license intact.
What if the Complaint Is Minor? Do I Still Need an Attorney?
Never assume any complaint against your license is "minor." The board has the right to revoke your license no matter how seemingly minor the complaint is. Additionally, even if the chances of losing your license are low, remember that any disciplinary action taken against you becomes a matter of public record. If the complaint is truly minor, having a lawyer could increase your chances of simply having the complaint dismissed, so it doesn't go on your record.
My Dietitian-nutritionist License Was Already Revoked. Can an Attorney Help Me Get It Reinstated?
Yes—in many cases, reinstatement is possible, especially with the help of an experienced attorney. Most states have a process in place that allows you to apply for license reinstatement after a certain amount of time. The process may include any/all of the following steps:
- Complete a reinstatement application, accompanied by a written explanation as to why your license should be reinstated
- Pay any applicable fines and/or application fees
- Submit a detailed record of every job you held while your license was inactive
- Present proof that you have fulfilled all specified requirements to be reinstated (for example, a treatment program or continuing education)
- Agree to any action plan proposed by the state licensing board as a condition for reinstatement
A professional license attorney can coordinate the application process for you and the paying of fees, as well as monitor the process and negotiate with the board for the best possible terms for your reinstatement.
What Can a Good Attorney Do To Help Me Keep My License?
A skilled license defense attorney can greatly increase your chances of resolving any complaint against you in a way that allows you to keep your license. An experienced attorney can do any/all of the following:
- Review the complaint and help you understand what is at stake
- Strategize with you as to the best way to respond to the complaint
- Gather evidence and witnesses to support your position
- Act as your official legal representative in all interactions with the board--including a formal hearing, if necessary
- Intervene and negotiate at multiple points to have the complaint dismissed or for more lenient penalties
- Advise you as to whether a consent order is in your best interest and/or work for the best possible terms with any consent order
- Assist you with the reinstatement process if your license has been suspended or revoked
I've Just Been Notified of a Complaint Against Me and That My License Is Under Investigation. How Soon Should I Contact an Attorney?
Truly, the sooner, the better. If you wait until you are summoned for a formal hearing to hire legal counsel, you will be at a disadvantage because the licensing board has likely already assembled a case against you. Hiring an attorney early in the process gives you a much better chance to negotiate a resolution that allows you to keep your license and your ability to continue practicing as a dietitian or nutritionist.
Don't take unnecessary risks with your career by attempting to face a license investigation on your own. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped many licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York whose licenses are in jeopardy. Take steps today to protect your license. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your case and your options.