As a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT or LMFT), you have invested heavily in yourself to establish your career. You've spent many years and tens of thousands of dollars to earn your degree, followed by thousands of hours of field experience as a supervised intern, before you could even attempt to pass your AMFTRB exams.
Needless to say, your professional license is now your most prized possession because your entire career hinges on it. So when an allegation of misconduct or a complaint to the state licensing board threatens that license, it can throw your whole future into jeopardy. Not only can losing your license cost you your career, but even the suggestion of misconduct can seriously hurt your trust level with the public you serve. If you're facing accusations of misconduct, you may be filled with uncertainty and fear, and naturally so. However, knowledge is power, and to help you navigate what's next, the Lento Law Firm has compiled answers to some of the most common questions facing MFTs who are under investigation. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended many licensed professionals across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York whose licenses are under threat.
What Agency Do I Answer To if a Complaint Is Filed Against Me?
Every state has its own licensing board that oversees and regulates marriage and family therapists in that state. In New Jersey, it's the State Board of Marriage and Family Therapy Examiners. In Pennsylvania, it's the State Board of Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists and Professional Counselors. And in New York, it's the Mental Health Practitioners division of Office of the Professions. All the states are members of the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB), which sets uniform licensing standards and rules of discipline. If someone files a complaint against you and you are under investigation, any disciplinary action will be decided by your state licensing board following guidelines set forth by the AMFTRB.
What allegations could endanger my MFT license?
Since being a marriage and family therapist is a public trust, most offenses that can result in losing your license have something to do with violating that trust or violating specific rules in your state. Examples include, but are not limited to:
- Relationship misconduct. Establishing romantic or sexual relationships with a client is highly unethical, and it is one of the quickest ways to lose your license. Additional relationship misconduct examples include sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact with colleagues or clients, or having “dual relationships” with a client (e.g., financial, familial) that could invite manipulation.
- Fraudulent activities. Examples might include overbilling insurance companies, charging different fees for uninsured private payers than for the insured, false advertising, publishing fraudulent research, etc.
- Substance abuse. Alcoholism and drug addictions can jeopardize your license because they cast doubt on your ability to serve your clients—especially if you hold client sessions while under the influence. Similarly, mishandling of controlled substances in general can cause you to lose your license.
- Misrepresenting credentials. If you make misleading claims regarding your qualifications, you could jeopardize your license.
- Acting beyond your qualifications. If you provide treatment or therapy outside the scope of your qualifications, you could lose your license.
- Record-keeping/confidentiality violations. Counselor-client confidentiality is a sacred trust, so record-keeping violations are taken seriously. So is the disclosure of any confidential client information, whether or not it's intentional.
- Professional incompetence or negligence. Failing to measure up to the standards of your profession when treating clients, or acting abusively toward them, can cost you your license.
- Criminal convictions. Being convicted of certain types of crimes can disqualify you from being a licensed MFT.
What other penalties could I face besides losing my license?
Not every violation of the rules will result in losing your MFT license. The licensing board will take into account certain mitigating factors when considering the allegations against you, including the individual circumstances, the severity of the alleged misconduct, and even your willingness to take responsibility for actual wrongdoing. Examples of lesser disciplinary sanctions might include:
- Suspending your license. The board may prohibit you from practicing for a specified period of time or until certain conditions are met.
- Fines. State boards often impose a monetary fine as a penalty.
- Probation. The board may monitor your activities for a certain length of time or require supervision of your activities.
- Restrictions on your license. The board may restrict you from performing certain functions.
- Reprimand or citation. The board may issue a written reprimand in response to the violation.
Can lesser penalties still hurt my career as an MFT even if I'm allowed to continue practicing?
Yes, they can. In most cases, any sanctions or disciplinary actions against your license will become a matter of public record, accessible by any firm, employer, or client who wants to look you up. Disciplinary marks can sometimes convince a firm not to hire you or deter a client from working with you. If at all possible, your best outcome is to have the complaint dismissed, which can often be accomplished with the help of a skilled attorney.
I've been notified of a complaint against me. What happens now?
Every state board adopts its own disciplinary process when a complaint is filed against a licensed marriage and family therapist, but for the most part, the disciplinary pathway is similar for each state. You can expect the process to be something similar to the following:
- Reviewing the complaint. The board will do an initial review of the complaint to determine whether it has merit or whether it falls within the scope of their authority.
- Investigation. The board looks deeper into the complaint to see whether there is any evidence to support it. You will likely be asked to provide a formal response to the complaint, whether in writing or in person, and you'll be given the opportunity to present evidence to refute the claims. The board may also interview the person making the complaint, subpoena documents, and summon witnesses. If the board determines there is not enough evidence to support the complaint, it may opt to dismiss it at this point.
- Consent order. If the board believes the complaint against you is valid, it may opt to negotiate a consent order with you as an alternative to going through formal disciplinary proceedings. A consent order is an agreement with the state in which you submit voluntarily to certain disciplinary actions.
- Formal hearing. If no consent order is offered, or if you refuse to agree to one, the matter moves into the formal hearing stage. Depending on the rules of your state, the hearing will either be held before the board itself or before an Administrative Law Judge. Both sides will present evidence.
- Determination and disciplinary action. The board makes a final determination as to whether the allegations are true, and renders discipline accordingly.
- Appeal. You have the right to appeal an adverse decision to the appellate courts in your state—although in most cases, the board's decision is upheld.
If this process appears lengthy and involved, bear in mind that there are many points along the way during which the complaint can be resolved, either by dismissing the complaint or by negotiating for a better outcome without having to go to a formal hearing. An experienced license defense attorney can be very helpful in facilitating a resolution apart from a formal hearing.
Should I agree to a consent order if one is offered to me?
That depends on the circumstances. For all intents and purposes, a consent decree constitutes an admission of guilt, which means there will likely be some form of discipline. If the evidence against you is significant, this might actually be a preferable solution to going through a formal hearing, especially if you can avoid having your MFT license revoked in the process. Even if the consent order requires you to surrender your license, cooperating with the board may improve your chances for eventual reinstatement.
The other side of this coin is that the consent order, and any disciplinary action that goes with it, becomes part of your public record. This can impact your career even if you get to keep your license. If you have evidence that disproves the complaint, or if there is not enough evidence to support it, you may be better off trying to fight the allegations or having the complaint dismissed so the matter stays off your public record if you are exonerated. We recommend that you not agree to any consent order negotiations without the advice of an experienced license defense attorney.
Is it necessary to hire an attorney, or can I just clear the matter up informally with the board?
You have the right to represent your own interests to the licensing board during an investigation, and even during a formal hearing. However, doing so is highly inadvisable because you're far less likely to achieve a favorable outcome. Here's what you need to keep in mind:
- The board is not on your side. The state licensing board does not exist to protect you, but to protect the public by regulating your activities. The board has a responsibility to investigate all complaints and to look for evidence against you to support those claims. Any effort you make to “smooth things over” informally with a regulatory board will likely work against you.
- A professional license investigation is a legal matter. Your license represents a legal agreement with the state, which means any violation of that agreement becomes a legal matter. In such cases, it's beneficial to be represented by a legal expert rather than trying to “go it alone.”
- You're at a disadvantage by default. That sounds ironic in a society where we are supposed to be “innocent until proven guilty.” But the fact is, the state licensing board understands the disciplinary process better than you do, which means they have the advantage with any complaint filed against you. Having an attorney helps to level the playing field so you have a better chance of defending yourself.
What if the allegations are minor? Do I still need to hire an attorney?
It's advisable to hire an attorney even for supposedly minor complaints, for several reasons. First, it's unwise to think of any allegation as “minor.” The board will take all complaints seriously, and if you don't do likewise, you might be surprised when your license is suspended or revoked for that “minor” offense. Second, if the offense is truly minor, you still don't want that minor offense putting a negative mark on your professional record if you can avoid it. Hiring an attorney actually gives you a better chance of having minor complaints dismissed, so they don't hound your career down the road.
If an investigator makes an appearance at my home or office, should I let them in or answer their questions?
No, you shouldn't. Doing so can't help you, but it can certainly hurt you. Remember, the board is not your ally when you are under investigation, and neither is the investigator. They aren't looking for opportunities to exonerate you; they're looking for evidence against you. That means anything you say or do could be used against you. You're expected to cooperate with the investigation, but you also have a right to have an attorney present. Thus, if an investigator visits you unannounced, you're not required to let them in. Instead, politely ask for their contact information and inform them that your attorney will contact them.
How do I choose an attorney to help defend my MFT license?
While the state will allow any licensed attorney to represent you in a license disciplinary case, not every attorney will have the expertise needed to help you. It may be tempting to hire a lawyer because they are a family friend who offers you a good rate, but you could be rolling the dice with your license. For best results and the best chance of a favorable outcome, look for an attorney who understands administrative law and has experience with professional licensing boards.
What can a professional license defense attorney do to help me?
Hiring an attorney with specific experience in license defense cases will greatly improve your chances for a good outcome. A good attorney will have a working knowledge of administrative law and how board investigations work in your state. The attorney will advise you on the nature of the complaint, what it means, and what the possible outcomes will be. He will also help you gather evidence, procure witnesses in your defense, and act as your legal representative before the licensing board to work toward the best possible resolution. In many cases, a skilled attorney can have the complaint dropped before it ever reaches the hearing stage.
My MFT license has already been suspended or revoked. Can an attorney help me get it reinstated?
Yes. A professional license attorney can help coordinate efforts to have your license reinstated. Most states have stipulations regarding license reinstatement that involve some or all of the following steps:
- Filling out an application or request for reinstatement
- Providing a written explanation of why you are requesting reinstatement and why the board should consider it
- Paying any applicable fees
- Providing proof of completion of any prescribed requirements (i.e., continuing education, treatment)
- Submitting a work history describing all positions you have held while your license was inactive
- Agreeing to any conditions or plan of action which the board may prescribe before reinstatement
The process of reinstatement can be complicated and involved. A good license attorney can make the process go more smoothly by coordinating your paperwork and fees, following up with the board on the status of your application, and negotiating the best terms and conditions for your reinstatement.
Do I have to stop practicing or running my firm while my license is under investigation?
No—not unless the board issues an interim suspension of your license. Unless you are told otherwise, you are free to continue practicing as a marriage and family therapist while your investigation is ongoing. If you are employed by a firm, however, that firm may have its own rules in place regarding therapists under investigation, and you may have to abide by those rules.
It's important to note that many complaints do not result in having your license revoked. This is especially significant if you operate your own practice because you don't want your business to slow down or drop off unnecessarily. We recommend that you continue to operate your practice as normally as possible—including recruiting staff and marketing to new clients—until the board informs you otherwise. That way, you will hopefully experience no drop in your business when the matter is resolved.
Am I required to tell colleagues or clients that my professional license is under investigation? How do I address their concerns?
You are under no legal obligation to disclose details of an ongoing license investigation, either to clients or colleagues—and if the matter is resolved and the complaint is dismissed, they (and you) will be none the worse for it. The exception might be if you are employed by a larger practice and it stipulates in your contract that you must inform your employers about it, at which point you're bound by your agreement. If word gets out about the investigation and someone asks you about it, be honest but avoid detailed explanations. Ignore the urge to tell “your side” of the story, as this may cause you to come across as defensive. Instead, acknowledge the investigation while reassuring the person that you are cooperating fully with the board and that you intend to continue providing the best care and service possible in the meantime.
What becomes of my clients if my license is suspended or revoked?
While hoping for the best, it's good professional practice to prepare for the worst. If the board does revoke or suspend your license, the last thing you want is for clients in the midst of possibly painful therapy to have nowhere to go. If you don't already have a good referral system in place, now is a good time to establish one. To the point that you're comfortable doing so, reach out to some trusted colleagues, let them know there is a possibility you won't be able to continue practicing, and ask if you can refer your clients if necessary. If the worst happens, you will at least be able to refer your clients for further care.
I've just received notice of a complaint or investigation against my license. How soon do I need to contact an attorney?
The sooner, the better. Some professionals choose to wait until there is a formal hearing before obtaining legal representation, but if you do so, bear in mind, you are entering the process on the defensive because the board has likely already formed an opinion based on available evidence. If you hire an attorney early in the process, your attorney will have multiple opportunities to negotiate for a better outcome with the board, greatly improving the odds that a hearing won't even be necessary.
Remember, your livelihood as a marriage and family counselor hinges on your license, and any disciplinary action could do damage to your professional reputation. Don't take unnecessary risks with your career if someone files a complaint with the board against you. Even a simple misunderstanding or a lapse in judgment can have serious repercussions for your career. Make sure you have effective legal representation in place so you can protect your future.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended many licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. He understands the state board disciplinary processes in all three states, and as such he knows how to strategize with you for the best possible outcome. If you're a licensed MFT who has been accused of misconduct, contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your case and your options.