Becoming a licensed social worker has been no easy task for you. You've potentially spent at least six years (and tens of thousands of dollars) earning a bachelor's and master's degree. You've then completed 2-3 years and thousands of hours of supervised work experience under another licensed social worker, followed by taking an extensive licensing exam. Now that you've earned your license, that license is essentially your most prized possession, for without it, you basically have no career.
Suffice it to say that if you're accused of misconduct and the state licensing board investigates a complaint against you, it can be extremely scary and highly disruptive. Even a misunderstanding or a momentary lapse in judgment can have long-term repercussions on your career. If you find yourself in this position, you are probably filled with uncertainty as to the future. What happens if the board suspends or revokes your license? What happens to your patients or clients if that happens? Will you lose your career?
Knowledge is power, as they say. Attorney Joseph D. Lento represents social workers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are in danger of losing their license, and he has a long track record of success against allegations of misconduct. To that end, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following answers to common questions about disciplinary actions taken against licensed social workers. The answers to these questions will help you be more informed, so you know what to expect and how to prepare.
What Agency Is Responsible for Investigating a Complaint Against Me?
Each state has its own licensing board to regulate licensing, investigate complaints, and administer discipline for licensed social workers. If you are licensed in New Jersey, it's the State Board of Social Work Examiners. For Pennsylvania, it's the State Board of Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists and Professional Counselors. If you're licensed in New York, you answer to the Office of the Professions under the NYS Education Department. If a complaint is filed against you, the licensing board in the state where you are licensed will pursue the investigation.
In addition, while each state handles its own regulating of licensed social workers, the social work licensing boards of all states are affiliated with the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), a nonprofit organization that helps set uniform examinations and licensing standards for social workers nationwide. Thus, while each state has varying requirements for obtaining a license, the codes of conduct and disciplinary processes are fairly similar in the states as supported by the ASWB.
What could cause me to lose my license to practice as a social worker?
In addition to practicing standards set by the ASWB, each state has its own regulations regarding violations that could cause you to lose your license. That being said, most such offenses involve either breaking the public trust or breaking board regulations—or both. Here are just a few examples of common violations that could jeopardize your license:
- Acting outside the scope of your license. Most states have different licensing tiers for social workers with limitations on what they can do. If you act outside the bounds of what your license allows, you could lose it.
- Unprofessional conduct. This broad term can include anything from unethical practices to immoral behaviors to the mistreatment of patients.
- Criminal convictions. Being convicted of certain crimes can jeopardize your license, especially crimes of an ethical nature. Each state holds its own standards on this issue; in some states, a felony conviction will disqualify you from being an architect, while in other states, a conviction of any kind could be grounds for revoking your license.
- Substance abuse. If you have an addiction to alcohol or drugs that could potentially impair your judgment or ability to help others effectively, the board may suspend or revoke your license.
- Fraud. Fraudulent practices can cost you your license—most notably, fraudulently billing insurance companies for your services.
- Moral turpitude/gross immorality. Behaviors considered highly immoral can be grounds for loss of license, including (but not limited to) sexual harassment and inappropriate relationships with colleagues or patients.
- Permitting an unlicensed person to perform licensed work. If you allow a colleague or employee to perform social work designated only for licensed individuals, you could lose your own right to practice.
What other sanctions could I face besides loss of license?
Not every offense will cost you your social worker's license automatically. Licensing boards have some latitude for determining other types of disciplinary actions (or “sanctions”) that may allow you to continue practicing. Examples include:
- License suspension. You may be temporarily or indefinitely restricted from practice with the option of reinstatement.
- Fines. The board may penalize you financially.
- Probation. You may be put on probation for a certain period of time and permitted to continue practicing with conditions.
- Limitations on licensure. The board may impose certain restrictions on your license for certain activities or services.
- Continuing education requirements. If the violation is deemed to be caused by a gap in your education, the board may require you to fill that gap with mandated CE.
- Formal reprimand or censure. The board may issue a written reprimand that appears on your public record.
If I don't lose my license, can these other sanctions still hurt my career?
Yes, they can. Disciplinary actions taken by a regulatory board are a matter of public record, so any sanction issued against you may be accessible to the public. These negative marks can affect whether a firm, agency, or patient wishes to work with you if they decide to look up your record. To make matters worse, the ASWB maintains its own database for disciplinary actions, so even if you get licensed in another state, the sanctions from the other state may come back to haunt you.
What does the disciplinary process look like?
While each state board, the disciplinary process can look a bit different. However, in most cases, social workers facing allegations of misconduct can expect to go through a process similar to what we describe below:
- Complaint. Nearly every disciplinary action begins with a complaint filed against you with the board. This complaint could be filed by almost anyone you're affiliated with—a colleague, an employee, an insurance company, a patient, etc.
- Investigation. The board will investigate the complaint to determine whether there is any evidence to support the allegations. This can sometimes be an involved process that includes interviewing the complainant and witnesses, subpoenas of documentation, etc. You will also be notified and given a chance to submit a formal response to the complaint telling your side of the story.
- Consent order. If there is significant evidence to back the complaint, the board may invite you to negotiate a consent order as an alternative to a formal hearing. A consent order is a voluntary yet binding agreement in which you submit to prescribed sanctions for your alleged misconduct, including the possible surrender of your license.
- Formal hearing. If a consent order is not offered, or if you refuse it, the board may then call a formal hearing regarding the complaint. This is a legal proceeding in which you either appear before the board to make your defense or both sides appear before an Administrative Law Judge.
- Determination and board action. When the formal hearing concludes, the board (or judge) makes a final determination on your case, and the board makes a decision regarding disciplinary action based on that determination.
- Appeal. You have the option to appeal any adverse action to the appellate court system in your state. However, unless you have overwhelming evidence that the case was mishandled, the appellate courts are highly unlikely to overturn the decision.
It's important to note that at several points in this process, the board may make a decision to dismiss the complaint without moving forward, especially if the evidence against you is sparse. Having a good license defense attorney in your corner can go a long way toward having unfair allegations dismissed.
Is a consent order preferable to going through a formal hearing?
It can be, but it depends. A consent order may be preferable to a formal hearing if it results in a more lenient penalty. Even if the consent order involves you surrendering your license, your cooperation may improve your chances for an eventual reinstatement of your license. All that being said, a consent order essentially constitutes an admission of guilt, so it will go on your public record. If you have strong evidence of your innocence, you might have a better chance of having the complaint dismissed by going through the hearing instead. We recommend consulting with an experienced license defense attorney before accepting any consent order.
Can I refuse to cooperate with an investigation? What happens if I do?
Your license to work as a social worker carries implied accountability to the state, and that means you are expected to cooperate with any investigation. If you resist, deflect, or otherwise refuse to cooperate, the licensing board will likely rule summarily against you. You don't need to do or say anything that would be used against you, but general cooperation with the investigation gives you a better chance of keeping your license. Rebelling against the process is an almost sure-fire way to have your license revoked.
Am I allowed to continue working while the investigation is underway?
Yes—with a couple of possible exceptions. First, if the board deems it necessary, it may issue a temporary suspension of your license while the investigation is ongoing. Second, if you work for a practice or agency with a policy to place social workers on leave when they are investigated, you may be suspended or asked to stay home until the matter is resolved. If neither of these things happens, you may continue operating as normal until the board says otherwise.
Am I required to tell people that my license or practice is being investigated?
In most cases, no. You have no legal obligation to tell patients, clients, or colleagues that your license is in jeopardy or that you're being investigated (although they may find it out if the board calls them as witnesses). One possible exception is if your place of employment has a policy requiring you to disclose that information—at which point you could be terminated if you fail to tell them about the investigation.
If someone asks about the investigation, what should I say?
If word spreads that you have a complaint against you and are being investigated, you may have colleagues or even patients ask you about it. If so, we recommend being honest without divulging too many details. Acknowledge the investigation, but assure them that you are cooperating with the board to resolve the matter, and you intend to continue providing excellent service and care in the meantime. Resist the urge to defend yourself or to give your side of the story, as this may actually backfire on you.
Do I have to hire an attorney if my license is in jeopardy? Am I allowed to try and resolve the matter with the board myself?
You have the right to represent yourself and speak on your own behalf during an investigation and hearing. You also have the right to attempt resolution with the licensing board yourself. However, it's highly advisable to hire an experienced attorney rather than try and resolve it yourself. Here's why:
- You are going into this situation at a disadvantage. Regardless of anyone's intentions, the licensing board has the “home field” advantage when investigating you or holding a hearing. They understand the disciplinary process much better than you do, and that means you are at a disadvantage. Having an attorney representing you who knows the system can help put you on more solid footing so you can defend yourself better.
- A professional license complaint/investigation is a legal matter. This is because your social worker's license is a legal agreement with the state licensing board, and any violation constitutes a breach of that agreement. When facing legal issues, it's best to have a legal expert on your team.
- The state licensing board is not on your side. Their job is not to protect you, but to protect the public from bad operators. (That means if you're suspected of misconduct, they see themselves as protecting the public from you.) Thus, any attempt you make to settle the matter casually or informally could backfire and make you look worse. In such settings, it's always best to have a lawyer interacting with the board on your behalf.
What if the complaint is over minor offenses? Is it still necessary to hire an attorney?
Yes, it's still in your best interests to hire an attorney even for a so-called “minor offense.” Why?
- You could still lose your license or face other disciplinary action over so-called “minor” offenses. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to underestimate the board's position or intentions. Don't assume any offense is too “minor” to have proper legal representation.
- Even “minor” offenses can hurt your public record and reputation. Conversely, minor offenses have a better chance of being dismissed, so your record stays clean. Hiring an attorney improves the odds of this happening.
What should I do if an investigator from the licensing board comes in person to my home or business unannounced?
If an investigator shows up unannounced at your practice or your home asking to come in and talk or look around, do not engage or accommodate them. You are expected to cooperate with an investigation, but you are not required to put yourself at a disadvantage. The investigator's job is to look for evidence to support the complaint, which means anything you say or do could be used against you. You are not required to let them in or answer their questions. Instead, politely do one of the following:
- Give them your attorney's contact information and ask them to call him; or
- Ask for their contact information and inform them your attorney will call them.
What is the best kind of attorney to help save my social worker's license?
While any lawyer who is licensed to practice in your state can serve as legal counsel, your best option is to find an attorney with specific experience and a track record in the area of professional license defense. This falls under the area of administrative law, and an attorney who doesn't have this kind of knowledge or experience may not be able to explore enough options or strategies to help you. An attorney who concentrates on license defense cases will have a better handle on the licensing rules and disciplinary processes for your state, giving you a better advantage in defending your license.
What can a license defense attorney do to help me?
Hiring a good license defense attorney can improve your chances for keeping your license from being revoked, as well as helping you obtain the best possible resolution for your case. A good attorney can:
- Provide a clear understanding of the complaint against you, what can happen if the board rules against you, and what you can do about it;
- Help you formulate a strategy and plan of action for defending your license;
- Gather evidence and witnesses to support your position;
- Interact directly with the licensing board on your behalf;
- Negotiate throughout the disciplinary process to obtain the most lenient penalty possible, up to and including having the complaint dismissed entirely; and
- Defend your license in formal proceedings if the case moves forward.
The state board has already revoked my social worker's license. Can an attorney help me get it reinstated?
Yes. Reinstatement policies and procedures vary from state to state, but an attorney can help you navigate the process. To procure reinstatement, you may need to do any or all of the following:
- Submit a formal request or application for reinstatement, with an explanation as to why the board should consider it
- Paying any application fees and outstanding fines
- Providing a work history outlining jobs you held while your license was revoked
- Meeting any/all pre-requisites or mandated actions to qualify for reinstatement (for example, if the board mandated continuing education or treatment for substance abuse)
- Submitting to any plan of action prescribed by the board to qualify you for reinstatement
An experienced professional license attorney can expedite this process for you by coordinating your paperwork and fees, following up with the board regarding the status of your request, and negotiating for the best possible terms of reinstatement.
At what point in the disciplinary process should I consider hiring an attorney?
Optimally, you should hire an attorney as soon as you receive notice of a complaint against you. Some licensed professionals make the mistake of waiting until a formal hearing is scheduled to seek legal representation. However, this approach is less likely to succeed because the board has already solidified its case against you before the hearing is scheduled. Getting an attorney involved early in the process gives you more opportunities to negotiate for a better outcome or dismissal of the complaint, avoiding the formal hearing completely. The sooner you hire an attorney, the better your chances of keeping your license and coming out of the process unscathed.
Since so much of your professional career hinges on your social worker's license, the last thing you want to do is take unnecessary risks when your license is called into question. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended many licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York; he knows the laws and how the disciplinary process works in these states, and he can quickly identify the best pathways to saving your license and keeping your career intact. If you're facing accusations of misconduct or a pending investigation, call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 to discuss your case and your options.