After the many years and thousands of dollars you've invested in your studies to become a licensed psychologist, your professional license is your prized possession. It not only represents your ability to help others but is the key to your entire living. When that license is jeopardized by allegations of misconduct, it can throw your future into uncertainty.
If you're a psychologist who has recently been notified of a complaint against you or an investigation into allegations made about you, chances are you are feeling some apprehension and anxiety yourself. What are the chances that you will lose your license—and your practice? What happens if you do? What can you expect over the next weeks and months? Will this ruin your reputation and your ability to make a living? What will become of your patients?
With the help of an attorney experienced in professional license defense, you can greatly increase your chances of a positive outcome and rescue your license. Joseph D. Lento has helped many licensed professionals facing disciplinary action in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. To help you find your bearings and make informed choices, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following information to help you know what to expect when your license is threatened by accusations and allegations—and what steps you can take to secure your future.
What types of allegations might prompt the state board to revoke my psychologist's license?
Psychologists can face possible suspension or revocation of their licenses over a wide range of offenses and violations. Below are some of the most common examples:
- Dual relationships. Because psychologists are dealing with patients who are particularly vulnerable, ethics require that the psychologist have no “dual relationships” with their patients—meaning they do not have other relational roles that could influence their advice. If you form additional entanglements with clients (e.g., financial, familial, or romantic), the board may consider it grounds for revocation.
- Sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct may take a variety of forms, including sex with a patient, as well as sexual harassment or unwanted advances toward patients, colleagues, or employees.
- Fraud. Overcharging patients, billing for services not performed, “upcoding” insurance companies to get more money from them…these are common examples of fraud that can cost you your license.
- Criminal convictions. Being convicted of certain crimes, especially those involving moral turpitude, can jeopardize a psychologist's license.
- Substance abuse. Alcoholism and drug abuse can result in losing your license if the board determines that your judgment or professionalism is affected by them.
- Violating patient confidentiality. If you divulge what a patient tells you in private (with the exception of the discovery of abuse), or if you are careless with a patient's personal information, you could risk losing your license.
- Failing to report abuse. The one exception to patient confidentiality is when you discover that a child, spouse, or elderly person is being abused. You're required by law to report these incidents to the authorities, and if you don't, you could lose your license.
- Misrepresenting your qualifications. If you claim a level of qualification that you haven't earned or perform services above your level of qualification, you could lose your license. One example: claiming to be a psychiatrist rather than a psychologist and consequently prescribing medications you're not authorized to prescribe.
What penalties could I face instead of losing my license?
Not every complaint or allegation of wrongdoing will result in losing your license. Depending on the severity of the allegation, the available evidence, and the specific circumstances, the licensing board may opt to take other disciplinary actions that would allow you to keep your license. Common examples might include:
- Suspending your license. Instead of completely revoking your license, the board could suspend your license for a period of time, allowing you to be reinstated eventually.
- Fines. You might be fined a certain amount of money in return for keeping your license.
- Probation or restrictions. The board may allow you to continue practicing with certain restrictions in place—or they may put you on probation, closely monitoring your activities for a time.
- Imposing conditions. The board may set certain requirements in place as a prerequisite for keeping your license—for example, a mandate for continuing education or a mandatory treatment program.
- Formal reprimand. The board may issue a written reprimand, which appears on your public record.
While any of these penalties would be preferable to losing your license, bear in mind that most/all of these sanctions can become a matter of public record that patients, colleagues, and employers can (and do) access.
What is the disciplinary process for psychologists accused of misconduct?
The regulatory board for psychologists in New Jersey is the State Board of Psychological Examiners. In Pennsylvania, it's the State Board of Psychology. The disciplinary process may vary a bit depending on your state, but if you're facing misconduct allegations, here's a basic overview of the process:
- Complaint. Most disciplinary proceedings begin when someone files a formal complaint against you. The complaint may originate from a patient, colleague, coworker, healthcare facility, or insurance company.
- Investigation. The board launches an investigation to determine whether the complaint has merit. This process may take several months and may involve questioning the complainant, gathering evidence, questioning witnesses, issuing subpoenas, etc. The board will also ask you to respond formally to the complaint—either in writing, in person, or both.
- Consent decree. If the board finds significant evidence of wrongdoing, they will often attempt to negotiate a consent decree with you as an alternative to a formal licensure hearing. A consent decree is a legally binding agreement between the state, the board, and you, in which you collectively agree upon a set of prescribed actions in response to the complaint. In many cases, a consent decree will either allow you to keep your license or apply for reinstatement.
- Formal hearing. If the charges are egregious or an agreement can't be reached regarding a consent decree, the case moves into the hearing phase. The formal hearing takes place either in front of the board or in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), where both sides present evidence. The judge or the board will then make a ruling, and if it is determined that you committed a violation, the board will determine the appropriate disciplinary action.
- Appeal. If you disagree with the outcome of the case and the resulting penalties, you have the right to file an appeal with the appellate courts in your state. That said, most appeals are only to review the case for procedural errors, and board determinations are seldom overturned.
At any point during this process, the board may decide to dismiss the complaint due to insufficient evidence or for other reasons. Additionally, a good license defense attorney can move on your behalf to convince the board to agree to lesser disciplinary actions.
What happens if I don't respond to the complaint or cooperate with the investigation?
Your psychologist's license is an official agreement with the licensing board and with the state that you will conduct yourself in accordance with the rules. With that agreement comes inherent accountability and an understanding that you will cooperate with any investigation into your activities. If you stonewall the investigation or choose to ignore the complaint, the board typically treats it as an admission of guilt and will likely rule summarily against you. In other words, ignoring a complaint or an investigation is an almost sure way to lose your license.
That being said, you do have some rights in this process—including the right to legal representation. You can refer any inquiries to your attorney, but refusing to cooperate or ignoring the issue entirely will almost never work in your favor.
Am I allowed to continue operating my practice while I am under investigation?
You are legally allowed to continue operating your practice during an investigation unless and until the licensing board tells you otherwise. Many investigations do not result in losing one's license, and many psychologists continue their practices without interruption through the entire disciplinary process. Your best approach to an investigation is to cooperate with it (with the advice and help of an attorney) and treat your practice as “business as usual” while the investigation is ongoing. That includes any advertising, marketing, and recruiting you have going on.
There are two possible exceptions to consider:
- If the charges are particularly egregious, the licensing board may issue a temporary emergency suspension of your license while the investigation goes forward. In such cases, you'll need to suspend operations until the board clears you.
- If you are employed by a larger facility, that employer may have the right to suspend you during the investigation, depending on company policy, applicable laws, and/or the terms of your contract.
Am I required to disclose that my professional license is under investigation? How do I address concerns about the investigation with colleagues and/or patients?
You are under no obligation to disclose to your patients that the licensing board is investigating you. If you are under contract or the employ of a clinic or healthcare facility, you may be required under the terms of your employment to disclose this information to them—and if that's the case, they may terminate you if you fail to do so. Consult your organization's policies to know their expectations.
In some cases, word of an investigation may get out to either your patients or colleagues. If someone asks about it, you should be honest but avoid giving details. Simply inform them that the licensing board is investigating you, that you are cooperating fully with the investigation, and that you intend to continue providing the highest quality of care to your patients in the meantime. Avoid the temptation to tell “your side” of the story or disparage the person who filed the complaint. Doing so could only hurt your case, not to mention reflect badly on you to patients and colleagues.
What do I do with my patients if my license is suspended or revoked?
While you may continue seeing patients for as long as your license remains in force, the one thing you don't want to do is leave mentally ill or vulnerable patients hanging if your license is suspended or revoked. This is where it helps to have a good referral network in place.
To ensure your patients continue to receive care in the worst-case scenario, we recommend forming referral relationships with other psychologists whom you know and trust. Reach out to these colleagues, let them know what's happening (as much as you feel comfortable divulging), and ask whether they would be willing to take on some or all of your patient load in the event you are unable to continue seeing them. There's no need to share this information with your patients unless it becomes necessary—but at the very least, you will have provided options for their continued care. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it may also build trust and loyalty for the future if you intend to seek reinstatement.
Why do I need an attorney? Can't I just resolve this issue directly with the licensing board?
You have every right to represent yourself in any licensing board investigation and hearing—that same as you have the right to represent yourself in court if you were facing a lawsuit or criminal charges. But that doesn't mean it's the best option. If you hire an attorney, the chances of a better outcome go up considerably, while if you “go it alone,” you run a much greater risk of incurring a more severe penalty or of losing your psychologist's license altogether.
Here's why it helps to have an attorney help you defend your license:
- Any action taken against your license is a legal matter. Your professional license constitutes a legal agreement with the state—so by extension, any disciplinary proceeding regarding your license is a legal proceeding. Since you're a mental health expert and not a legal expert, it only makes sense to hire a legal expert to help you with legal matters.
- The licensing board is not your ally. It exists not to protect you but to protect the public. For that reason, the board treats any complaint as a potential threat against the public interest—and that means you are under scrutiny until the board determines you are not a threat. As a result, anything you say and do on your own behalf can actually work against you—including any attempt at resolving the matter informally by “explaining the situation” to the board. Having legal representation in these cases is much safer because your attorney knows how to respond on your behalf in a way that protects your interests.
- The licensing board has the “home field advantage” when it comes to disciplinary investigations and hearings. The board has plenty of experience in license discipline cases because it's their job—while chances are you have zero experience in that arena. No matter how “fair” they try to make the proceedings, you're still at a disadvantage from the start because the board knows the process better than you do. An experienced attorney helps to put you back on equal footing, so to speak.
I've been told that the allegations against me are minor offenses. Do I still need an attorney?
Don't make the mistake of taking any complaint lightly. Even if the licensing board rarely revokes someone's license over this type of offense, don't assume that they couldn't or wouldn't do so in your case. Additionally, even lesser penalties like reprimands or probation can appear on your public disciplinary record and do harm to your professional representation. To improve your chance for the best possible outcome, we recommend hiring an attorney even for minor infractions or so-called misunderstandings.
What do I do if an investigator from the licensing board shows up at my office or home? Do I have to let him/her look around or answer their questions?
Absolutely not. If an investigator comes knocking, do not let them in, and do not engage them. You are expected to cooperate with the investigation in general, but that does not mean you forfeit your rights to legal representation or that you have to say or do anything that could be used against you. The investigator is not there to prove your innocence but to find evidence against you. To protect your rights while maintaining a cooperative spirit, politely decline their entrance and refer them to your attorney for any further interaction.
What kind of attorney do I need to help defend my psychologist's license?
While any licensed attorney can legally represent you, not every attorney has the experience and skills to defend your professional license in a board investigation or hearing. For best results, look for an attorney who has expertise in administrative law, preferably one who has specific experience in license defense cases for psychologists and other licensed health professionals.
How can having a license defense attorney improve my chances of keeping my license?
An attorney with license defense experience can greatly increase your odds, not only of keeping your license but of walking away with the least amount of professional damage. A good attorney can and will:
- Evaluate the details of the complaint against you and advise you regarding what is at stake;
- Explain your options and help you develop a defense strategy;
- Gather witnesses and evidence to prove your innocence;
- Act as your official counsel in any and all interactions with the licensing board (and if necessary, with a judge); and
- Interact with the board at all stages of the proceedings to negotiate for the best possible terms.
In short, a good license defense attorney gives you a much better chance of having the complaint dismissed entirely, or at least of incurring lesser penalties than if you tried to address the complaint alone.
My psychologist's license has already been suspended or revoked. Can a professional license attorney help me get it reinstated?
Yes. In most cases, a psychologist can apply for reinstatement after a certain period of time, and an attorney can certainly help coordinate that process. The specific process for reinstatement may vary from state to state, but in most cases, it involves some version of the following:
- Filling out an application or request for reinstatement
- Submitting a written statement explaining why you're applying for reinstatement and why the board should consider it
- Paying any applicable fees
- Providing a work history of all jobs held while your license was inactive
- Showing that you've completed any predetermined requirements for reinstatement (for example, continuing education or treatment)
If the licensing board agrees to consider reinstating your license, they may also work with you to set up an “action plan” of certain steps you must take to qualify for full reinstatement.
During this whole process, an experienced attorney can coordinate your paperwork and fees, interact with the board regarding the status of your application, help you craft a compelling case for reinstatement, and negotiate for the best terms of any action plan.
How soon should I hire an attorney when I receive notice of a complaint?
The short answer is, the sooner, the better. Some psychologists and other licensed professionals assume they don't really need an attorney unless the board calls a formal hearing. The truth is, by that point, you're already on the defensive because the board won't even call a hearing unless they already believe they have a solid case against you. Hiring an attorney early in the process can give you a much better advantage with any complaint—and in many cases, the attorney can keep the matter even from reaching the formal hearing stage.
If you're a psychologist accused of misconduct and your license is at risk, your whole career is at risk, as well—not to mention your professional reputation. That license is the key to your livelihood, so why would you take unnecessary chances with it? Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped many psychologists and other health professionals throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York to keep their licenses intact and protected. Take the necessary steps to protect your future. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your case and your options.