4 Indest-2009-3By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

I am often asked about the burden of proof that must be met by the state Department of Health (DOH) in professional licensing disciplinary cases. This could be a complaint against a physician, dentists, mental health counselor, nurse, psychologist, pharmacist or anyone else. It also includes, for example, engineers, general contractors, school teachers, architects, cosmetologists, or any other professional holding a professional license in Florida. However, since we routinely represent health professionals, I will continue to concentrate on those licenses by the state DOH in this blog. Click here to read part one.

Fifth Amendment Protection Against Self-Incrimination Applies.

Because potential license revocation proceedings are penal in nature, a respondent or license holder in such an investigation or administrative hearing has the right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and under the Florida Constitution.

Otherwise, this would defeat the spirit and intent of the constitutional protections guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United State Constitution. See, State v. Caballero, 396 So. 2d 1210, 1213 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981) (“A coerced confession offends due process of law.”); Dickerson v. U.S., 530 U.S. 428, 434, 120 S. Ct. 2326, 2331 (2000) (“We have never abandoned this due process jurisprudence, and thus continue to exclude confessions that were obtained involuntarily”); Chambers v. State of Fla., 309 U.S. 227, 228, 60 S. Ct. 472, 473 (1940) (“[U]se by a state of an improperly obtained confession may constitute a denial of due process of law as guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment”); and Barnes v. Merrill, 2002 WL 1313123 (D. Me. 2002) (“Involuntary statements are inadmissible under the Fifth Amendment requirement that no person can be compelled to be a witness against himself in a criminal case.”).

For Florida cases on point, see, Chancellor Media Whiteco Outdoor v. Fla. Dep’t of Transport., 26 Fla. L. Weekly D627 (Fla. 5th DCA March 2, 2001), substitute opinion entered on rehearing, 795 So. 2d 991, 26 Fla. L. Weekly D1894 (Fla. 5th DCA July 30, 2001). See also, State ex rel. Vining v. Fla. Real Estate Comm’n, 281 So.2d 487, 491 (Fla. 1973); Best Pool & Spa Service Co., Inc. v. Romanik, 622 So. 2d 65, 66 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993) (“We agree that requiring Kassover to answer . . . questions does violate his right against self-incrimination which applies not only to criminal matters but also administrative proceedings such as licensing”).

Florida Courts Require Higher Standard for Administrative Licensure Cases.

In Florida, the courts have adopted and have required the “clear and convincing” standard to be used in any case involving a professional license, finding that such action by the state is punitive or penal in nature and affects a substantial right of the respondent. The key Florida cases that discuss this are two Florida Supreme Court cases, Florida Bar v. Rayman, 238 So. 2d 594 (Fla. 1970) and Ferris v. Turlington, 510 So. 2d 292 (Fla. 1987). See also, Kozerowitz v. Fla. Real Estate Comm’n, 289 So. 2d 391 (Fla. 1974).

Any case in which a state administrative agency seeks a penalty, a fine or action affecting the status of a professional license, would require the application of a “clear and convincing standard.” An action to revoke a professional license is definitely considered to be penal. So too is an action which results in the loss of income, such as by suspending a license (so there is no professional income), a fine, or an order to refund professional fees. McDonald v. Dep’t of Prof. Reg., Bd. of Pilot Commissioners, 582 So. 2d 660 (1st DCA 1991)

Although these are all Florida cases, if you read them and follow their rationale, they go back to basic constitutional principles of due process of law and the taking away of rights or property without due process.

For example, in one case in which I defended a nursing home’s license, the state had evidence that contradicted itself. There were certain facts at issue and the state put forth two different sets of facts. The state could not prove either set of facts by “clear and convincing evidence.” Therefore, by law, the administrative law judge had to rule in favor of the license holder.

Penal Statutes, Such as Professional Discipline Statutes and Professional Practice Acts Must Be Narrowly Interpreted.

A statute is unconstitutionally void for vagueness if it fails to give a personal of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what conduct is forbidden by the Statute. Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110 (1972). United States v. Harriss, 347 U.S. 612, 74 S. Ct. 808, 98 L. Ed. 989, (1954). Criminal statutes must be written with sufficient specificity so that citizens are given fair warning of the offending conduct, and law enforcement officers are prevented from engaging in arbitrary and erratic enforcement activity. Papachristou; Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 60 S. Ct. 736, 84 L. Ed. 1093 (1940); Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451, 59 S. Ct. 618, 83 L. Ed. 888 (1939).

Florida case law has long upheld this principle of the common law as well. Statutes must be written well enough so as to provide fair notice to ordinary citizens as to their exact meaning. State v. Warren, 558 So. 2d 55 (Fla. 5th DCA 1990), aff’d. Warren v. State 16 Fla., L. Week 28 (Fla. 1991).

When First Notified of a Pending Investigation Seek the Advice of an Experienced Health Law Attorney.

When you receive any notice, by telephone, by mail, by hand delivery or by information passed along by your employer, that an investigation has been opened against your professional license, immediately contact an attorney experienced in such matters. Do not talk to the investigator. Do not talk to the prosecuting attorney. Do not call the state agency and ask for advice on what you should do. Do not send a written statement explaining your side of the story.

You have important constitutional rights that protect you. But you have to exercise the common sense required to use these rights. Part of this is by obtaining competent legal counsel who can advise you and protect your rights. Again, we remind you that unless an attorney routinely handles this type of case, he or she may be unfamiliar with what your rights are in such a situation or how to handle it.

Contact Health Law Attorneys Experienced in Representing Health Care Professionals and Providers.

At the Health Law Firm we provide legal services for all health care providers and professionals. This includes physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, Durable Medical Equipment suppliers, medical students and interns, hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, pain management clinics, nursing homes, and any other health care provider. We represent facilities, individuals, groups and institutions in contracts, sales, mergers and acquisitions.

The services we provide include reviewing and negotiating contracts, business transactions, professional license defense, representation in investigations, credential defense, representation in peer review and clinical privileges hearings, Medicare and Medicaid audits, commercial litigation, and administrative hearings.

To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 or (850) 439-1001 and visit our website at www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave., Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.

“The Health Law Firm” is a registered fictitious business name of George F. Indest III, P.A. – The Health Law Firm, a Florida professional service corporation, since 1999.
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