In my last blog I wrote about real estate applicant who failed to disclose on his Real Estate Commission application a criminal conviction. Upon discovery the Commission revoked his license and the Commonwealth Court approved of the action. Today’s blog involves the exact opposite result for one of my physician clients.
On October 14, 2014 Dr. Christopher Elder, a Texas licensed physician, submitted an application to Pennsylvania’s Medical Board for a license to practice medicine and surgery. Unlike Hawes, Elder disclosed a 2010 federal conviction for aiding in abetting and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 846. On April 2, 2015 the Pennsylvania Medical Board provisionally denied Elder’s application. The Board maintained the Criminal History Record Information Act, 18 Pa. C.S. § 9124(c)(1) (CHIRA), authorized licensure denial because of Elder’s felony conviction. The Board also denied licensure, maintaining Elder lacked good moral character and did not possess the requisite training and experience.
Elder appealed the conditional denial of licensure. At the hearing before a the Hearing Officer Elder presented his credentials, training and experience, the facts of the criminal case, and character evidence. Consistent with prior Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent, Elder maintained the criminal conviction was too remote for the Board to determine such affected his current ability to do his job lawfully. Elder’s mitigating evidence established his minor role in the criminal case and his rehabilitation since release from prison.
The Hearing Officer weighed Elder’s witness’ credibility and Elder’s mitigating evidence. He ruled in Elder’s favor, stating that while Elder’s criminal conduct demonstrated moral turpitude at the time of its commission, Elder presented persuasive evidence of his rehabilitation and present moral fitness to practice medicine. A period of probation was required to allow Elder the ability to secure appropriate supplemental educational classes for competency.
The Medical Board rejected the Hearing Officer’s proposed adjudication. The Board determined Elder’s explanation of his crime displayed a lack of remorse and acceptance of responsibility, that Elder still lacked the moral turpitude to be a doctor in Pennsylvania, and lacked the educational qualifications. Elder appealed, maintaining the Board’s decision was arbitrary and capricious in light of the competent, uncontested character evidence and age of the criminal act.
Commonwealth Court agreed with Elder. For the second time in as many months, the Court took a Pennsylvania licensing board out to the wood shed and gave it a stern whipping. The Court emphasized that Boards must look at the age of the crime as it related to current fitness. Remote, past dereliction, must be considered where an agency seeks to revoke a professional license on the basis of a criminal conviction. Secretary of Revenue v. John’s Vending Corporation, 453 Pa. 488, 309 A.2d 358 (1973).
The Court explained that “where the prior convictions do not in anyway reflect upon the [applicant’s] present ability to properly discharge the responsibilities required by the position, we hold that the convictions cannot provide a basis for the revocation of a … license.”
For Elder I determined he must present a clear explanation of the criminal enterprise accompanied by extensive mitigating evidence. The Board was dismissive of Elder’s mitigating evidence, stating that “[r]ather than to take responsibility and express remorse for his criminal misconduct during his testimony, [Elder] attempted to minimize his role.” Elder responded that such did not minimize his criminal conduct but explained his role in the underlying conspiracy, which the Board misconstrued as a collateral attack on his conviction. Elder directs the Court to Nguyen v. Bureau o f P rofessional a nd O ccupational Affairs, State Board of Cosmetology, 53 A.3d 100 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012).
The Commonwealth Court reviewed the entire record, the Federal Court sentencing transcript, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, and each witness’ testimony of Elder’s character and rehabilitation. The Court emphatically states:
The record does not support the Board’s assertion that Elder failed to express remorse or to take responsibility for his criminal conduct. At the hearing, Elder stated that he was “really” and “deeply” remorseful and he “absolutely accept[s]” responsibility.” He presented witnesses to attest to his remorse. The Board did not explain how this testimony was inadequate or what else Elder could have said. Elder’s attempt to place his criminal conduct into context and explain his role in the conspiracy does not demonstrate a lack of remorse or rehabilitation, as the Board presumed. The Board simply made a subjective determination that was contrary to that of the Hearing Examiner, who directly observed Elder and his witnesses, and accepted his evidence on remorse.
We hold that the Board erred and abused its discretion in reaching the conclusion that Elder does not have the present moral character required for a license. Elder’s crimes were committed over 14 years ago and were isolated to a single episode in his life. He has served his sentence. The Board erred by categorizing Elder’s evidence as not accepting responsibility when he was simply explaining his role in the conspiracy. The Board’s conclusion on Elder’s moral character cannot be reconciled with John’s Vending, 453 Pa. 488, 309 A.2d 358, or Nguyen, 53 A.3d 100. It did not take into account its own findings that Elder’s conduct since 2004 has been not only free of criminal conduct but dedicated to significant volunteer and public service activities.
In reversing the Board and instructing it to grant licensure, the Commonwealth Court determined the Medical Board sanction was a “manifest and flagrant abuse of discretion and purely an arbitrary execution of the agency’s duties or functions.” This is an amazing Commonwealth Court conclusion. Elder disclosed his federal criminal conviction for conspiracy to illegally distribute drugs. Elder set forth his long road to redemption, of rehabilitation, and his true character. The Court, a court of law, not the quasi-legal self-protecting Medical Board, looked at the facts – which mattered — and granted licensure.
Long hard preparation of this case won the day. My methodical approach to making a clear record of personal character recovery, redemption, and rehabilitation, could not be ignored. This cases reveals that proper presentation, preservation of the record, and coordination of witness is paramount to success. Call me to discuss your case.