As a licensed professional geologist, you've worked hard to get where you are today. It takes a great deal of passion to pursue geology as a career, and your skills are in high demand. But even the best can make a mistake that could jeopardize their license. Whether it's a simple oversight or something more serious, facing disciplinary action from your licensing board can be a daunting experience. Without skilled legal counsel in your corner, you could be facing reprimands and fines at best and the loss of your license and career at worst.
If you find yourself in this situation, it's important to understand the process and what options are available to you. Your first step is to hire an experienced professional license defense attorney who can represent your interests throughout the disciplinary process. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has years of experience helping licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are facing possible disciplinary action. The Lento Law Firm has provided the following key information so you can be informed as to what to expect.
Who handles license investigations against geologists in my state?
If you're accused of wrongdoing, the same state licensing board that issued your license will oversee the disciplinary process regarding your license. For example, New Jersey, for example, specifically licenses professional geologists as Site Remediation Professionals, so you would answer to the Site Remediation Professional Licensing Board in that state. In Pennsylvania, you answer to the State Registration Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists. And in New York, it's the Geology Division of the Office of the Professions.
What types of allegations could lead to me losing my professional geologist's license?
Your state's licensing board has an established code of conduct to ensure geologists operate at the highest standards of ethical and professional excellence. Most offenses leading to license revocation have something to do with violating that code of conduct in some way. Examples may include:
- Acting outside the scope of your license. If you're accused of providing services beyond what your geologist license allows, you could be facing disciplinary action.
- Fraud or deceit. If you're accused of misrepresenting your qualifications or committing fraud in any way, you could be facing major penalties, up to and including revocation of your license.
- Failing to act in the interest of public safety and the environment. If you're accused of making decisions that put people or the environment at risk due to negligence or recklessness, you could be facing disciplinary action.
- Sexual misconduct or harassment. Example: making unwanted advances toward a colleague or client.
- Criminal convictions. Being convicted of certain crimes (especially crimes of moral turpitude) can disqualify you from holding a professional license.
How does the disciplinary process work?
While each state board has its own disciplinary procedures in place, you can expect the disciplinary process to follow a path similar to the following:
- Complaint. The majority of disciplinary proceedings start when someone files a formal complaint concerning you to your licensing board. The complainant could be a client, a colleague, an employer, etc. In cases of criminal convictions, the courts may automatically notify your licensing board about the conviction on your record.
- Review. The board will review the complaint in order to determine its legitimacy and credibility, as well as whether or not it falls under the board's purview.
- Investigation. The board will launch an investigation to determine if there is any supporting evidence to validate the complaint. Usually, the board will appoint a specific investigator to interview witnesses, review documents, and gather evidence. If there is insufficient evidence to support the complaint, the board may drop the matter at this point.
- Consent order. If sufficient evidence is available to support the complaint, the board might negotiate with you to agree to a consent order as an alternative to summoning you to a formal hearing. With a consent order, you effectively admit to the complaint and willingly submit to the board's recommended disciplinary actions. While this isn't always the best course of action, it may be a good solution if the evidence is compelling and it includes a pathway to reinstatement. (A good license defense attorney can often negotiate these terms into a consent order.)
- Formal hearing. If the investigator uncovers sufficient evidence and no consent order is reached, the matter proceeds to the formal hearing stage. This can either take place before the board directly or in front of an Administrative Law Judge. You will be summoned to give reasons why disciplinary action should not be rendered against your license. An attorney may represent you at the hearing.
- Final determination. After the hearing is over, the board will make a decision about whether to revoke or suspend your license, as well as whether any other disciplinary actions should be taken.
A professional license defense attorney can help you navigate this disciplinary process and improve your chances of saving your career. A good attorney can negotiate with board members at any stage of the process to either dismiss the complaint due to lack of evidence or to get them to accept lesser sanctions.
Am I guaranteed to lose my professional geologist's license if the board finds against me?
No. Depending on the circumstances, the board may impose lesser penalties that allow you to keep your license. Examples include:
- Temporary suspension. The board may suspend your license until certain conditions have been met, at which point they may reinstate you.
- Fines. The board may penalize you financially.
- Probation/license restrictions. The board may place you under supervision and/or restrict you from performing certain duties.
- Conditional agreements. You might be allowed to keep your license subject to certain conditions imposed by the board, such as agreeing to receive treatment for substance abuse or addiction.
- Formal reprimand/censure. The board may simply place a reprimand in your professional file.
Even if you are not subject to one of the lesser penalties, bear in mind that any disciplinary action taken by the board becomes a matter of public record and can have a detrimental effect on your career. Prospective clients, colleagues, or employers can search your license to see if there have been any disciplinary actions taken against you. This could affect their willingness to work with you. Consult with an experienced license defense lawyer to minimize the chances of having disciplinary actions placed on your record.
Why should I hire a lawyer to defend my license? Can't I resolve this issue with the board on my own?
While you certainly have the right to appear before the board (or an Administrative Law Judge) on your own behalf, it is generally not in your best interest to do so. The state education boards have broad authority to enforce discipline and have a low burden of proof. They don't see you as "innocent until proven guilty." To have your license revoked, they only need to prove your guilt using the preponderance of the evidence standard--meaning they only have to be convinced that you are at least 51 percent likely to have committed wrongdoing.
The board's role is to protect the public. Even if the complaint is not based in truth, you could find yourself in a difficult situation because any suggestion that you have broken the trust of the public will be considered seriously. Once a complaint is filed, the board will search actively for evidence of wrongdoing. For that reason, it can be very difficult to resolve the matter at an informal level because anything you say or do could actually be used against you. Having an experienced attorney in your corner is the best way to level the playing field by making sure your rights are protected and that your side is heard properly.
What will the attorney do to help protect my career?
A license defense attorney can greatly improve your chances of a positive resolution in disciplinary proceedings against your geologist license. Here are some ways an attorney can assist you:
- Assume the role as your legal representative in all communications with the state licensing board
- Assess the allegations against you and help you understand what's at stake
- Collaborate with you to create a compelling response to the complaint
- Gather evidence and witnesses to support your position
- Negotiate with the board at multiple points to resolve the issue in your best interests, including working for a dismissal of the complaint, reduced penalties, or a consent order with favorable terms
- Defend you at a formal hearing, if the matter proceeds to that point
What if the offense is minor? Do I still need an attorney?
It is foolish to consider any offense "minor" when it comes to your professional geologist's license. Even if it seems unlikely, the board has the authority to revoke your license even for seemingly minor infractions. Furthermore, even lesser penalties like fines or reprimands will become a matter of public record and could damage your professional reputation. A good attorney can help prevent these negative outcomes, and if the offense is truly minor, the attorney may even be able to negotiate for a dismissal of the complaint with no penalties, which would keep your professional record clean.
Is it true that hiring an attorney suggests to the board that I am guilty?
No, it's not. The state licensing board understands that this is a legal matter and is used to dealing with lawyers. If you hire an attorney, they won't assume you are guilty. Rather, hiring an attorney sends a message that you take the complaint seriously.
My professional license has already been suspended or revoked. Can a good attorney help me get it reinstated?
While it is easier to reinstate a suspended license than one that has been completely revoked, the state typically provides a path for eligible candidates to have their geologist license reinstated. You may be required to submit a new application or meet certain conditions. These conditions may include, but are not limited to:
- Submitting a written explanation as to why you're asking for reinstatement and why the board should consider it
- Paying all outstanding fees and fines
- Demonstrating that the circumstances that led to disciplinary actions are no longer an issue (for instance, completion of a treatment program related to substance abuse)
- Agreeing to any action plan that the board considers necessary as a condition for your reinstatement
If you are seeking reinstatement of your license, you'll improve your chances of success by hiring a license defense attorney to help coordinate the process.
I was just notified of a complaint against me. When is the best time to consult an attorney?
The sooner, the better. Consult with an attorney as soon as possible to give them time to review your case and to develop a solid strategy to respond to the complaint. You should remember that by the time your case gets to the formal hearing stage, the licensing board will have already solidified its case against you. This puts you at a disadvantage because your role in the hearing will basically be to explain why they should not invoke penalties against you or revoke your license. Hiring a good attorney early in the process puts you on a better footing and may allow you to avoid a hearing altogether.
Your professional license is essential to your career as a geologist. Even a single allegation of wrongdoing could put that license at risk. Hiring an attorney at the first sign of trouble could very well save your career from harm. Protect your livelihood by taking steps now. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to see how we can help.