A career in landscape architecture can be highly rewarding and fulfilling. It's also one that relies heavily on public trust because you're entrusted with designing and beautifying outdoor spaces, both public and private, while also ensuring these spaces are safe to use. Unfortunately, this also means that a single complaint can place your professional license under scrutiny by your state's licensing board, possibly triggering an investigation and even disciplinary action.
Losing your landscape architect license can mean the end of your career, and it can happen for a variety of reasons. If you find yourself in this scenario, it's critical to understand the procedure and the alternatives open to you. Your first step should be to hire a skilled, experienced license defense attorney who will fight for your rights throughout the proceedings. Attorney Joseph D. Lento helps licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are facing adverse actions from their licensing boards. We have provided the following key information to help you make informed decisions if your license is in jeopardy.
Who handles investigations against landscape architects in my state?
The same state licensing board that granted your landscape architect's license will oversee the disciplinary procedure for your license if you're accused of misconduct. For example, if you're licensed in New Jersey, for example, you answer to the New Jersey State Board of Architects; if in Pennsylvania, it's the State Board of Landscape Architects; and in New York, you would answer to the Landscape Architecture division of the Office of the Professions.
What kinds of claims might result in my losing my landscape architect's license?
To ensure that landscape architects operate at the highest levels of ethical and professional excellence, your state's licensing board has established a code of conduct that all licensees must follow. Most offenses leading to losing one's license have something to do with violating that code of conduct or violating the public trust in some way. Examples may include:
- Acting outside the scope of your license. Providing services beyond what your license allows could result in the loss of your license.
- Fraudulent or deceitful practices. Examples might include false advertising, performing services without addressing a conflict of interest, charging for services not rendered, misrepresenting your qualifications, or certifying substandard work.
- Gross incompetence or negligence. You could be subject to disciplinary action if you're accused of making poor judgments that put individuals or the environment in danger as a result of negligence or carelessness.
- Sexual misconduct or harassment. For example, making inappropriate advances toward a coworker or customer.
- Substance abuse. Drug use or excessive alcohol use may place your competency in doubt with the board.
- Criminal convictions. Being convicted of certain crimes (especially crimes of moral turpitude) can disqualify you from holding a license in many states--even if the conviction occurred in another state.
What does the disciplinary process look like?
The disciplinary process may vary slightly from state to state, but in most cases, the process looks something like the following:
- Complaint. Most disciplinary proceedings begin when someone files a formal complaint about you to your licensing board. This could be a client, a colleague, an employer, etc. Likewise, the licensing board might automatically be notified by the courts if you have been convicted of a crime.
- Review. The board will examine the complaint to determine its legitimacy, credibility, and whether it falls within the purview of the board.
- Investigation. To determine if the complaint is supported by evidence, the board will open an investigation. An investigator may be appointed to interview witnesses, request a subpoena for records, and gather other evidence. The board may decide to drop the complaint if there is not enough evidence to support it.
- Consent order. If the investigation turns up ample evidence against you, the board may offer to negotiate a consent order as an alternative to taking the matter into a formal hearing. A consent order is a binding agreement in which you effectively admit to wrongdoing and submit voluntarily to the board's recommended actions. This may not be the ideal solution in every situation, but it can work well if the agreement contains a path to reinstatement. A good license defense lawyer can often negotiate for optimal terms with consent orders.
- Formal hearing. The next step in the process, if no consent order is agreed upon, is to bring the matter before the board or an Administrative Law Judge in a formal hearing. You will be summoned to provide cause as to why the board should not invoke disciplinary action against your license. An attorney may represent you at the hearing.
- Final determination. At the conclusion of the hearing, the board will make a determination as to whether to find you at fault, and they will then decide whether to suspend or revoke your license and whether any other disciplinary action should be taken.
An experienced license defense attorney can assist you through every step in this process, greatly improving your chances for a more favorable outcome. This may include negotiating for a dismissal of the complaint due to lack of evidence, providing evidence to refute the claim, or negotiating for more lenient penalties.
Could I still be allowed to keep my landscape architect license if the board finds against me?
Yes. Not every disciplinary action results in having your license revoked. Based on the circumstances, and at its discretion, the board may impose other penalties that may either allow for reinstatement of your license or allow you to continue working with your license intact. Examples include:
- Suspension. The board may suspend your license but spell out certain conditions under which it may be reinstated.
- Fines. The board may penalize you financially.
- Probation/license restrictions. You may be put under the board's supervision or restricted from carrying out certain tasks.
- Conditional agreements. You might be allowed to keep your license conditionally if you agree to certain remedies prescribed by the board--for example, receiving counseling or undergoing rehab for an addiction.
- Formal reprimand. The board may place a simple reprimand in your file.
Bear in mind that even if you're allowed to keep your license, any disciplinary action taken by the board becomes a matter of public record. Your license may be searched by prospective clients, coworkers, or employers to see if any disciplinary actions have been taken against you. This might influence their willingness to work with you. To decrease the probability of having disciplinary actions placed on your record, consult with an experienced license defense attorney.
Why should I hire an attorney to defend my license? What if I can resolve the issue with the board myself?
Although you have the right to represent yourself before the board or an Administrative Law Judge, this is not usually in your best interests. The licensing board exists to protect the public, not you--and as soon as a complaint is filed, they begin actively looking for evidence to substantiate the complaint--including any interactions you have with the board from that point forward. In other words, unlike the court system, they do NOT necessarily consider you innocent until proven guilty. They have broad authority to invoke discipline against your license, and they have a fairly low burden of proof to decide whether you are guilty. This puts you at a disadvantage.
Under these circumstances, the best way to ensure your side is heard and your rights are protected is to hire an experienced professional license defense attorney to represent your interests--someone who understands how the board works and what they need to see/hear to rule in your favor.
What will a license defense attorney do to help protect my landscape architect license?
An experienced license defense attorney can significantly increase your chances of coming through the disciplinary process with your professional license intact. These are just a few ways that an attorney can help you:
- Act as your legal representative when interacting with the state licensing board
- Review the complaint against you and help you understand the implications of the accusations against you
- Work with you to create a compelling written response to the complaint (which is often enough on its own to have the complaint dismissed)
- Gather evidence and witnesses to support your side of the story
- Negotiate directly with the board at several points to resolve the matter in your best interest, including dismissal of the complaint, reduced penalties, or a consent order with favorable terms
- Defend you aggressively at a formal hearing
What if the alleged offense is minor? Do I still need an attorney?
When it comes to your license as a landscape architect, it is ill-advised to treat any offense as "minor." Although it may seem unlikely, even minor offenses can be grounds for a license being revoked by the board. And even minor penalties such as fines and reprimands can show up in public records, potentially harming our professional reputation even if your license is unaffected. An attorney can help you avoid these negative outcomes, and if the offense is indeed minor, a good attorney may even be able to negotiate to have the matter dropped with no public mention of it.
If I'm innocent of the complaint, doesn't hiring a lawyer make me look guilty?
No, it doesn't. Your license constitutes a legal agreement with the state, so any investigation into your license is a legal matter--which means it's entirely appropriate to hire an attorney. The board is accustomed to dealing with lawyers, and they won't presume that you are guilty if you hire one.
My professional license was already suspended or revoked. Can the attorney help me get it reinstated?
In many cases, yes. Unless the board specifically states otherwise, there are generally mechanisms in place to have one's license reinstated if it has been suspended or revoked. You may be required to submit a new application or meet certain conditions. For example:
- You may need to submit a written explanation of why you are asking for reinstatement and why the board should take it into consideration
- You will need to pay filing fees and any outstanding fines
- You may need to provide a work history detailing every job you've held while your license was inactive
- You may need to provide evidence that the underlying cause for your license being suspended/revoked has been addressed. (For example, if you were disciplined for substance abuse, show that you've gone through a treatment program.)
- Any pre-stated conditions for reinstatement must be met, and you may need to agree to additional conditions imposed by the board
A license defense attorney can help you coordinate the reapplication process for reinstating your license to give you the best chances for success.
I have received notice of a complaint against my landscape architect license. At what point should I hire an attorney?
Preferably, as soon as you receive notice, or at the first sign of trouble. The sooner you act, the better, the more time you give the attorney to review your case and develop a solid response to the complaint. Waiting until there is a formal hearing to hire an attorney is usually a mistake because, by that time, the board has already developed its own case against you. A good attorney can help you get on a more solid footing early in the process and could even save you from having to attend a hearing.
As a licensed landscape architect, your career hinges on your license. Don't let an allegation of wrongdoing put your career in jeopardy. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped many licensed professionals navigate the disciplinary process successfully, and quick action on your part could quite possibly save your career. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to see how we can help.