So You Received a Uniform Complaint – What Now?
If you are a veterinarian in Florida, there is a good chance that you have either received, or will receive, a letter from the Department of Business & Professional Regulation (“DBPR”) notifying you that they have received a “Complaint against your license to practice veterinary medicine.” Similar to death and taxes (in more ways than one), complaints against your license to practice veterinary medicine are essentially unavoidable if you practice long enough in Florida. This post is going to walk you through the steps of the administrative process, so you better understand it and know what steps you need to take when you receive that dreaded notice.
- The Uniform Complaint
You have received this notice from the DBPR because someone (typically a disgruntled client) has filed a complaint against you alleging that you did something wrong. This complaint becomes a “Uniform Complaint,” which is the basis for the Department’s investigation. There is no real screening process for these initial complaints, so regardless of whether it is a legitimate complaint or completely absurd, you have to go through the same process. The majority of complaints allege a violation of Florida Statute §474.214(1)(r) – negligence – and/or a Florida Statute §474.214(1)(ee) – records keeping. The good news is that this Complaint remains confidential unless and until the Board of Veterinary Medicine finds probable cause that a violation has occurred.
- The Probable Cause Process
Once you receive notice of the Uniform Complaint, you enter into the first stage of the administrative action – the Probable Cause Process. Per the Notice, you have 20 days to respond to the allegations in the Complaint and provide your medical records. A DBPR investigator will be assigned to your Complaint and he or she will collect those records and any other records that may be pertinent, as well as speak with the Complainant. Once their investigation is complete, they will generate an Entire Investigative File, which will include your response, those records, and any additional information gathered during the course of the investigation. That Entire Investigative File will then be provided to the Probable Cause Panel, which consists of two rotating members of the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine. Those members will review the Entire Investigative File with the attorney for the DBPR, and determine if Probable Cause exists. There are three possible outcomes:
- No Probable Cause exists and the case is dismissed. This is the best possible outcome as the case will be closed, the Board will take no further action, and it will all remain confidential (i.e. the fact that there was a complaint against your license will not show up on your licensure page).
- No Probable Cause exists, the case is dismissed, and a Letter of Guidance is issued. This is the second best possible outcome. The case is still closed, and it will remain confidential, however the Board will issue a Letter of Guidance to you, explaining what they believe you did wrong and instructing you to correct your behavior in the future. We often see this outcome in cases where it is a borderline call, or there are extenuating circumstances.
- Probable Cause is found. This is the worst possible outcome, as it means that the case will continue and the DBPR will be filing an Administrative Complaint against your license. This will show up on your licensure page 10 days after Probable Cause is found.
On particularly difficult cases, the Panel will sometimes refer the cases to an expert who will review the records and generate a report detailing his or her findings regarding whether or not there was a violation. Once the expert issues its report, the case will be heard again by the Probable Cause Panel, and they will typically decide consistent with the expert’s report.
- The Administrative Complaint and Resolution
If no Probable Cause is found, then your case is done and you do not enter the Administrative Complaint phase. However, if the Probable Cause Panel finds probable cause, the DBPR will issue an Administrative Complaint formally charging you with a violation of one of the statutes that governs the practice of veterinary medicine in Florida. At this point, you have three options:
- Do not fight the Panel’s decision and accept the guideline penalties.
- Do not fight the Panel’s decision, but enter into negotiations to reach a settlement stipulation that is below the guideline penalties. Once entered, you will then appear before the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine at one of their quarterly meetings to present your proposed settlement stipulation and any mitigating evidence in your favor.
- Fight the Panel’s decision and exercise your right to an Administrative Trial.
The majority of veterinarians opt for option two, which allows the veterinarian to reach a negotiated settlement agreement and resolve this matter without admitting any wrongdoing. Most sentences include a combination of probation, fines, and investigative costs. For instance, the sentence guidelines for a violation of the standard of care (F.S. §474.214(1)(r)) contemplate a period of one year of probation and an administrative fine from two to five thousand dollars for a first offense, and one year suspension, followed by two years of probation, and a five thousand dollar fine for a second or subsequent offense.
If you opt for option three, then the matter will be heard by an administrative judge and he or she will determine whether or not the attorney for the DBPR has proven that you violated the applicable statute(s) by clear and convincing evidence. Should they find that you have, that same administrative judge will also determine your sentence.
- So What Should You Do?
This process can be overwhelming, stressful, and scary, however if you take the following recommended steps you will can minimize the chances of receiving a Uniform Complaint, and be more prepared to handle one if you do:
- Make Sure You Have Licensure Insurance.
Not having, or not staying current, with your licensure defense insurance can turn a bad situation into a terrible one. If you have licensure defense insurance, you can report this Uniform Complaint immediately after you receive it and your carrier will provide you with an attorney who will handle your case and defend you. More importantly, your carrier will pay for that attorney, so you will not be getting billed for their representation. If you don’t have licensure defense insurance, you could be stuck representing yourself (never a good idea) or paying out of pocket for your defense.
- Keep Good Records.
Records keeping is the number one thing you can do to protect yourself against a Uniform Complaint. You have surely heard the adage that “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” Nowhere is that more true than before the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine. We have seen clients receive Uniform Complaints complaining of bogus breaches of the standard of care, only to have Administrative Complaints be filed on records keeping. If you have any doubt about your records keeping, Florida Administrative Code 61G18-18.002 outlines everything that you need to have in your records. You must follow this code to the letter, because if you don’t the Board will not hesitate to proceed on an Administrative Complaint for a violation of F.S. §474.214(1)(ee).
- Call Us If You Have Any Questions.
If you have any questions about anything mentioned in this article, or anything to do with the intersection of veterinary medicine and the law, do not hesitate to call our offices. We have been representing veterinarians in both administrative and civil matters for over 15 years, and have good working relationships with the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the DBPR. We will be happy to discuss any questions that you may have and help you in any way we can on your journey as a veterinarian.
PLEASE NOTE – this blog post is not meant to be legal advice and is not a substitute for speaking with a licensed attorney regarding any legal issues you may be facing. Should you have any case-specific questions, please do not hesitate to reach out.