It doesn't happen all too often, but when it does, it can be nothing short of devastating. You're a working licensed professional—be it a doctor, nurse, social worker, real estate broker, etc.—and you receive notification from your state licensing board that not only has a complaint been filed against you, but they are issuing an Interim Suspension Order while they investigate and process the complaint. You've got a full roster of clients (or patients) and a full schedule—and if the Interim Suspension Order goes through, you're legally required to stop work or close your practice until the matter is resolved. In an instant, both your livelihood and your entire career are now in jeopardy. What do you do?
If you've been hit with an Interim Suspension Order (ISO), you need to take appropriate steps quickly to rescue your career. ISOs are tricky to navigate legally, and not every professional license attorney is equipped to handle them because they are relatively rare. Fortunately, attorney Joseph D. Lento is a seasoned professional license attorney who has helped protect the licenses of many working professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Let's talk more about the issue of Interim Suspension Orders—what you need to know and what steps you can take to protect your interests.
What is an Interim Suspension Order?
An Interim Suspension Order (ISO, also sometimes called an Emergency Suspension Order or Order of Temporary Suspension) is an emergency order from the licensing board overseeing your professional license that mandates you to cease operations immediately while a complaint is being investigated. Depending on the policies of the board and the laws of your state, the ISO may be issued directly by the board, or it may be issued by an Administrative Law Judge at the request of the board. Either way, an ISO prohibits you from working in your licensed profession until the matter in question is resolved.
Why are ISOs issued?
ISOs are issued only rarely. State licensing boards have a dual obligation to protect the public interest and to provide fair treatment to their licensed professionals. For this reason, most disciplinary investigations allow the licensee to continue practicing until the investigation demonstrates a clear violation and a penalty is decided on. Interim Suspension Orders are typically only in those situations where the board believes there is an ongoing and immediate threat to the public's safety and well-being by allowing the professional to continue operations.
What types of offenses are most likely to trigger an Interim Suspension Order?
When a licensing board decides to issue an ISO (or file a motion for one), it's not as concerned with the type of offense as it is with protecting the public. The board will basically weigh two factors when deciding whether an ISO is in order: whether the alleged offense is ongoing or imminent; and whether the behavior poses an immediate threat to the public. Under these guidelines, an isolated offense that happened three years ago is less likely to trigger an ISO than a stream of recent complaints alleging misconduct.
Taking all this into account, offenses that are statistically most likely to trigger an ISO may include:
- Allegations of moral turpitude, mostly of a sexual nature. Examples may include allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, endangering a minor, etc.
- Allegations of ongoing fraud against the public. Examples might include a licensed financial planner conspiring to defraud investors or an accountant accused of embezzling funds.
- Acting outside the scope of one's license. The board may deem it a public threat if you are performing services for which you have not been certified.
- Allegations of administering unapproved or dangerous treatments. If you're a physician, for example, and someone files a complaint that you're prescribing potentially harmful treatments to patients or have a string of malpractice lawsuits, the medical board may issue an ISO to halt those potentially dangerous activities.
What are the threats to my career if an ISO is issued against my license?
The dangers presented by an ISO to your career are both immediate and severe. The fallout may include any or all of the following:
- Immediate loss of income due to an inability to work
- Possible loss of employment at your workplace
- Possible forcible closure of your business or practice
- Loss of clientele
- Loss of public trust and credibility
Even if you are ultimately exonerated and have your license restored, an Interim Suspension Order can do lasting damage to your business and career. It can take months or even years to rebuild your public credibility and your roster of clients.
What happens if I ignore an Interim Suspension Order?
Ignoring an ISO is tantamount to operating without a license. If you continue performing licensed activities under an ISO, the board will almost certainly revoke your license permanently. Furthermore, depending on the activity and the laws of your state, you could be subject to criminal charges. You can take steps to appeal or try to prevent an Interim Suspension Order, but once it takes effect, you could make your situation infinitely worse by ignoring it.
Will I have an opportunity to respond to a notification before an ISO goes into effect?
In many cases, yes—although the window of time will generally be short. The actual policy depends on the laws of your state and the rules/policies of your licensing board. When the licensing board files a motion for an ISO from an Administrative Law Judge, you'll usually be notified of a hearing which will take place soon after (generally two weeks or less). In cases where the board asserts an immediate public danger, an initial emergency hearing may take place with little or no notice to activate the ISO, with a second hearing to take place shortly afterward. You'll have the opportunity to respond at the second hearing. When the board issues the ISO directly, you may or may not be given advance notice.
Suffice it to say that when you're notified of a pending Interim Suspension Order, you have only a brief window of time to prevent it from taking effect—which is why it's critical to hire an experienced professional license attorney to help you craft a compelling response.
What Happens After the ISO Takes Effect?
Once the Interim Suspension Order becomes official, you'll be prohibited from performing licensed activities until the board completes its disciplinary process, at which point your license may be either restored, permanently suspended, or revoked entirely. In most cases, the disciplinary process involves some version of the following steps:
- Investigation. The licensing board will investigate the complaint to determine the details and whether the allegations have merit. This may include having you provide a written or oral explanation as to what happened, reviewing documentation, interviewing witnesses and/or alleged victims, etc.
- Consent order. After reviewing the facts, if the board has evidence to verify the complaint, they may offer to negotiate a consent order with you. A consent order is a binding agreement between you, the licensing board, and the state in which you admit to wrongdoing and voluntarily agree to accept the prescribed disciplinary actions as an alternative to going to a formal hearing.
- Formal hearing. If a consent order is neither offered nor agreed to, a formal hearing is scheduled. The case will be heard either directly in front of the board or before an Administrative Law Judge in a courtroom.
- Final determination and action. After the formal hearing, the licensing board makes a final determination regarding penalties to your license.
- Appeal. You have the right to appeal an adverse decision to the appellate courts in your state.
Should I agree to a consent order?
It depends. If the licensing board has enough evidence to prove serious wrongdoing on your part—especially if they intend to make your suspension permanent or revoke your license—a consent order may present an open door for negotiation for a lesser penalty or at least an opportunity for reinstatement of your license. On the other hand, a consent order constitutes an admission of guilt and will go on your permanent public record. If you have ample evidence to refute the complaint and/or you have reason to believe the ISO was issued wrongfully, your attorney may advise you to let the matter proceed to a formal hearing. Never agree to a consent order without the advice of an experienced professional license attorney.
Is it possible to stop an Interim Suspension Order before it takes effect?
Yes—especially with the help of a skilled professional license attorney. After you're given notice and an opportunity to respond, if you can provide compelling evidence at the hearing as to why the ISO is not necessary, it may be possible to convince the judge or the board to cancel the ISO. Some possible defenses against a pending ISO may include:
- Demonstrating no imminent public threat. Your lawyer may be able to refute the claim that allowing you to practice poses an immediate threat to the public.
- Demonstrating bad faith on the part of the board. If your attorney can show that the board was premature or vindictive in issuing or filing the ISO, he may convince a judge to invalidate it.
- Demonstrating irreparable harm. Your attorney may make the argument that an ISO could do irreparable harm to you and your career. This approach may work well if the evidence of an immediate public threat is relatively weak.
- Negotiating for alternative solutions. For example, the attorney may be able to convince the board or judge to allow you to continue practicing under supervision or monitoring during the investigation as an alternative to suspending your license.
What are the possible outcomes after the board concludes its investigation and/or hearings?
If the ISO takes effect, you'll be required to stop practicing your licensed profession until the board reaches a final decision on disciplinary action—whether that happens through a hearing, a consent order, or negotiating an alternative solution with your attorney. At the end of the process, the board will implement one of three possible outcomes:
- They may affirm the allegations against you, at which point the suspension either becomes permanent/indefinite or the board revokes your license completely.
- They may exonerate you or dismiss the complaint for lack of sufficient evidence, at which point your license will be restored, and you'll be allowed to return to work.
- They may agree to restore your license while imposing a lesser penalty. Examples of lesser penalties may include fines, probation, restricted license, mandatory treatment, restitution, etc.
Am I required to disclose to my patients, clients, etc., that my license is being investigated while I am under an ISO?
You won't generally be legally required to discuss the case with any patients or clients about the allegations against you or the investigation. However, if an Interim Suspension Order is in place, it effectively makes the investigation itself a public matter because you're no longer allowed to practice in the meantime—so it will be difficult or impossible for your clients or patients not to know something is up. To minimize the long-term damage to your career, we recommend being honest when asked—without giving too many details. Resist the urge to speak defensively or tell “your side of the story,” as this can ultimately hurt your credibility. Instead, simply tell clients, colleagues, or patients that you are cooperating with the investigation and complying with the terms of the ISO and that you hope to resume your work when the complaint is resolved.
Do I need to hire a professional license defense attorney to prevent or contest an Interim Suspension Order?
You have the right to represent yourself in any license disciplinary matter before the board or before an Administrative Law Judge—including responding to a notice for an ISO. However, your odds of successfully preventing the ISO without an attorney's help are very slim. By the time the board files a motion for an ISO, they are already convinced that you pose an imminent public threat, so you're unlikely to dissuade them by arguing on your own behalf. It typically requires excellent negotiation skills and extensive knowledge of the law to halt an Interim Suspension Order—the skills that only an experienced professional license defense attorney will have.
What can a professional license defense attorney do to prevent or reverse an Interim Suspension Order and rescue my career?
When you hire a skilled and experienced professional license defense attorney immediately upon being notified of an ISO, the attorney can move quickly to attempt to reverse the process and minimize the damage to your career. Specifically, the attorney can:
- Quickly the facts of the case and the complaint and gather evidence to support your defense
- Develop an effective defense strategy for responding to the claims
- Defend your position vigorously at the ISO hearing, presenting compelling arguments for why the suspension order should be canceled
- File a petition to review or rescind the ISO if it goes into effect
- Negotiate with the board aggressively for a resolution that allows your license to be restored
If you are given notice of an Interim Suspension Order, you may have only days to take decisive steps to save your career and livelihood from lasting or permanent damage. Too much is at stake for you to risk your future with a mediocre response. Hiring an exceptional professional license defense attorney can make the difference between success and failure when it comes to keeping your license. If you are a licensed professional in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or New York, and you are facing a possible ISO, attorney Joseph D. Lento can help. He has successfully defended many licensed professionals, even in highly difficult cases, and he knows the steps to take quickly to mitigate the damage and save your future. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to see how we can help.