Despite our best efforts to keep our personal and professional lives separate, sometimes what happens in one can affect the other deeply. Never is this truer than in domestic violence or related personal disputes. If you live or work in Pennsylvania, for example, and someone files a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order against you, it can cause a ripple effect in many parts of your life. Not only does the PFA restrict your contact with the person who got the order for up to three years, but it can also have an impact on your career in a multitude of negative capacities. And if you happen to violate the terms of the PFA, you could have a criminal record, as well. That criminal record could impact your professional license.
While PFAs are intended to protect victims of abuse, they can also be used inappropriately to wreak havoc on innocent lives. One of the most controversial aspects of PFAs is that they are so easy to obtain. If a disagreement with your significant other makes them vindictive, they can theoretically go to court without your knowledge or input, make false accusations against you, and obtain a temporary PFA against you. Suddenly, you're forced from your home, possibly banned from seeing your kids, and there's an instant “scarlet letter” of sorts on your chest, marking you as a possible abuser. Within a few days, there will be a hearing to decide whether to make the PFA permanent, which gives you only a short window of time in which to prepare a compelling defense that proves your innocence and clears your name.
A PFA Can Impact Your Professional License
One of the biggest concerns among licensed professionals in Pennsylvania is that a PFA could somehow affect their ability to practice their profession. If you are licensed or certified as a doctor, nurse, lawyer, mortgage broker, counselor, or other professional, you should be concerned about a PFA's potential impact on your license or certification. A PFA can certainly make it harder to get a professional license or certification. But a PFA can affect not only your license application but also a current professional license. A PFA can put your license at risk. You could face disciplinary actions from the licensing board on the grounds of the PFA.
Whether a PFA will affect your professional license or certification is a complicated and multilayered question. No answer fits every situation. If your PFA puts your professional license at risk—or if you're concerned that it could—you need an accomplished attorney who understands how these issues intersect. Joseph D. Lento is an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney who has specific expertise and knowledge regarding PFAs and professional licenses in the state. If you have concerns about a PFA, the following information will help you know what to expect with your state licensing board and the tangible steps you can take to protect your career.
An Overview of Protection from Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania
A Protection From Abuse (PFA) order is a specific type of restraining order in Pennsylvania designed to give people protective relief from their alleged abusers, especially in domestic violence settings. The PFA may have certain specific provisions that must be obeyed, but generally speaking, if someone obtains a PFA against you, it is illegal for you to contact them (and, if applicable, their children). If you violate the terms of the PFA in any way, you can be arrested and charged with a crime (in addition to any other criminal charges arising from whatever incident triggered the PFA).
Pennsylvania's General Assembly adopted the state's Protection from Abuse Act in 1990 to address the harms flowing from domestic violence. The Act's Section 6102 makes clear that the Act only addresses abuse “between family or household members, [or] sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood….” The same section proceeds to define abuse as “[a]ttempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing, bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon.” Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury, false imprisonment, and child abuse are other forms of abuse subject to the Act.
Types of PFAs in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania currently utilizes three types of PFAs to ensure both immediate and lasting protection for alleged victims of abuse:
- Emergency PFA—provides instant legal protection for victims who are perceived to be in immediate danger or currently suffering abuse. Emergency PFAs are typically issued by judges during off-hours and weekends when the courts are not in session.
- Temporary PFA—a temporary restraining order put in place by a judge at the request of the alleged victim. Temporary PFAs are usually issued “ex parte,” meaning the judge will issue the order on the word of the accuser without your need to be present. The temporary PFA stays in effect until a hearing is held to decide if it will become permanent (usually within 10 days).
- Final PFA—makes the temporary PFA permanent. The judge schedules a formal hearing where both parties may appear with their attorneys, and you will be allowed to make your case for why the PFA is either unnecessary or should be rescinded. If the PFA is finalized, it stays in effect for up to three years unless either side successfully petitions the court to rescind it.
Does a PFA show up on my criminal record?
Typically, not unless you violate it. A PFA is awarded in civil court, not a criminal court—but violating it is a crime. So if you are arrested and convicted for violating the PFA, it will show up on your criminal record. Yet whether your PFA shows up on a criminal record or not may not be the most significant question. Depending on your profession, your professional license may require you to report a PFA or PFA proceeding to your licensing body. Don't just let a PFA happen, expecting to comply with it. Depending on the grounds and circumstances, the PFA alone may affect your license. And the risk of violating a PFA can be substantial.
Can a PFA show up in other public records?
Not generally. Pennsylvania's Protection From Abuse Database collects information from the courts to include in the Pennsylvania State Police's protection order registry. Only authorized users, though, have access to the secured database. Authorized users include the courts, law enforcement agencies, and licensed lawyers. And under 23 Pa. Code Section 6105(e), only law enforcement and the courts have access to the state police registry. Interested persons, though, may apply to the county court that they suspect issued a PFA order, to see if the court will find good cause to disclose a PFA order. Courts tend to find good cause in any significant showing of an interest. On the other hand, if a licensing agency specifically requests disclosure, then be sure to either disclose or indicate your reason for refusing to do so. Failing to disclose when asked, or failing to indicate your refusal to do so when asked, may look like active concealment.
Could a PFA affect my professional license?
Yes, it could—although nothing is set in stone. A PFA may have absolutely no impact on your professional license in some cases, and in others, it might trigger an investigation and possible disciplinary action. Sometimes a PFA can cause trouble either when applying for a professional license or when your current licensing board finds out a PFA exists. Remember, though, not to attempt to conceal a PFA that your licensing board requires that you disclose.
Several factors will likely influence the possibility that your PFA will affect your professional license, including:
- The policies of your state licensing board regarding reporting arrests, convictions, sentencing, and other terms. Some licensing boards stipulate that you must report to them if you get arrested, are convicted of a crime, or have a restraining order against you. A PFA is a restraining order. When in doubt over whether disclosure is necessary, it is generally better to disclose so that non-disclosure does not look like a coverup.
- Your chosen profession. Every licensed profession has certain standards of conduct, but not every licensing board takes as keen an interest in your personal affairs. Some professions are more sensitive to domestic violence issues than others. Domestic violence is a health and safety issue, and so medical professions may treat it more seriously in licensing proceedings. Domestic violence also shows disrespect for the law, and so the law profession may also treat it more seriously in licensing proceedings. Domestic violence, though, is not a crime of dishonesty, and so financial and administrative professions may not treat it so seriously in licensing proceedings.
- Whether the licensing board routinely monitors your public records. Most will check your public records when you apply for a professional license, but not all licensing boards continue to monitor your records once they've issued your professional license. If your profession clearly does not require you to disclose a PFA to the licensing board, a fact which you should confirm with the board staff in doubt, then your PFA may not affect your license at all—as long as you don't violate it.
- Whether you violate the PFA. Not all licensing boards will be concerned about a PFA on your record since it's not a criminal action—but they might be more concerned if you're convicted of a crime related to your PFA. A PFA suggests evidence of domestic violence, which alone is a serious matter. But violating a PFA adds evidence of lawlessness and disrespect for the courts. Domestic violence may be far worse than violating a PFA order by, for instance, contact with the protected person. But violating a PFA is still a serious matter.
Why would a state licensing board take issue over a PFA, especially considering it is a civil matter, not a criminal one?
Although a PFA does not signify a criminal conviction, many state licensing boards are concerned that their license holders maintain certain standards of excellence in their personal lives as well as being worthy of the public trust. Since PFAs are often associated with domestic violence and abuse, the existence of a PFA suggests to the board that you may be involved with behaviors of moral turpitude—even if you have never been convicted of a crime. Violent disrespect for the safety and security of another is immoral, a sign of untrustworthy and dangerous character. Domestic violence is no small matter but instead a large matter. A PFA may only suggest the possibility of domestic violence, but it can still be a big red flag for licensing boards.
Also, because domestic violence carries such a stigma in our society and a PFA is a matter of public record, the board may have concerns not only about your character but also about the public's perception of you and your profession. A profession that licenses domestic abusers, placing them in a position of trust and care over vulnerable others, may not be a worthy profession. Licensing boards think not only of the safety of your clients but also of how the public perceives the profession. All of these factors could go into a decision by the board to launch an investigation or impose penalties on your license over a PFA.
Will a PFA automatically cause me to lose my professional license?
No. It's not impossible to lose your license over a PFA, but it depends on several factors, including the circumstances surrounding the PFA, the length of time elapsed, the licensing board's sensitivity to the issue, and your record of complying with the PFA. For example, if you were hit with a PFA only recently, accompanied by multiple criminal charges of abuse, a licensing board would be more likely to suspend or revoke your license than it would over a PFA on your record from 10 years ago with no recent compliance issues. The latter scenario poses much less risk to the public than the former.
That being said, it's not uncommon for the discovery of a PFA to raise questions or trigger an investigation. An investigation may be more likely if the licensing board discovers the PFA on its own, when the profession's rules required that you report it. Some professions may penalize for the non-disclosure violation alone, even if the disclosure would not have resulted in license discipline. If the board does decide to impose a penalty, there are numerous other actions it could take besides stripping you of your professional license. Examples might include:
- Placing restrictions on your license. You might have certain areas of your practice restricted (either temporarily or permanently), so that you lose certain practice areas from your usual practice mix.
- Imposing conditions on your license. The board may allow you to keep your license after fulfilling certain requirements such as mandatory counseling or treatment. Or the board may require you to practice only with other licensed professionals present or monitoring and responsible for your performance.
- Financial penalties. The board may impose a fine or require you to reimburse the costs of a licensing proceeding.
- Reprimand or censure. The licensing board may issue a formal reprimand that goes into your public licensing record. The board may also require you to send your clients or patients a copy of that reprimand so that those with whom you deal know your character.
Which professional licenses are most likely to be jeopardized by a PFA in Pennsylvania?
A PFA, by definition, promotes suspicion of domestic violence or assault, so almost any licensing board may have some concerns about a PFA on your record or in your history. That being said, certain professions are particularly sensitive to crimes of “moral turpitude” (including sexual assault and domestic violence). Other professions are especially concerned with the health, safety, and security of vulnerable clients, patients, or other individuals whom the profession serves or protects. And some professions simply require high levels of trust with their patients and clients—and a PFA could be seen as an issue in such cases.
Let's take a closer look at some licensed professions in Pennsylvania that could be placed at risk by the existence of a PFA.
In our society, the medical profession requires one of the highest levels of public trust. Doctors spend huge amounts of time alone with vulnerable patients, many of whom are placing their lives in their doctors' hands. The doctor-patient relationship is a sacred one, and any behavior that would weaken the trust of that relationship can deeply damage the physician's ability to treat patients. Patients need to trust their physicians to make necessary medical disclosures and receive necessary medical care.
The Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine weighs these matters very seriously and will readily question or investigate any allegation that damages a physician's trust level, hurts their credibility, questions their sense of sound judgment, or suggests even a hint of misconduct. A PFA carries with it the implication that the physician has the capacity to be abusive or cause harm to those who are vulnerable—not to mention the public stigma associated with it. Medical boards will look very closely at the circumstances of a PFA for evidence that the physician the PFA restrains could be a risk to private patients.
Physicians have to invest many thousands of dollars and years of their life in their education before qualifying for a medical license. If a doctor is hit with a PFA and the medical board finds out (which they likely will), it could cause severe damage to the doctor's reputation, practice, and very livelihood. Physicians have every reason to take a PFA most seriously, to protect their professional license and practice.
Being a licensed nurse requires almost as much public trust as being a doctor does—if not more public trust. Nurses may not have quite the training, authority, and influence of a medical doctor. In that sense, an untrustworthy nurse may not be quite the same threat to a patient as an untrustworthy medical doctor could be. But nurses typically spend even more time with patients than doctors do, and we rely heavily on nurses for ongoing care. Nurses certainly deal with vulnerable patients needing protection.
When a licensed nurse has a PFA against them, it can potentially wreak havoc on their ability to keep the trust of their patients as well as that of the Pennsylvania Board of Nursing. The PFA suggests that the nurse is capable of abuse, neglect, unprofessional conduct, and possibly serious boundary violations. Even though the nurse would probably never do these things, the perception is such that the Board of Nursing could have real issues with a PFA.
Qualifying to be a nurse requires a huge investment of time and money. Nurses also work long hours, which means nursing for many is their only source of income. Having their license suspended or revoked over a PFA could cause immediate and lasting damage to a nurse's livelihood. Nurses, like medical doctors, have every reason to take most seriously any PFA proceeding and any licensing proceeding over a PFA.
Licensed professional counselors/mental health professionals
Where we entrust our physical well-being to doctors and nurses, we entrust our mental and emotional well-being to counselors and other mental health professionals. As a result, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists see their patients when they are at their most vulnerable and fragile. Patients of mental health professionals are by nature more susceptible to undue influence and manipulation than are mentally healthy individuals.
Public trust for these mental health professionals is an absolute necessity for them to be able to do their jobs properly. For that reason alone, the Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists, and Professional Counselors (or, as applicable, the State Board of Psychology) is likely to take it very seriously when a PFA is filed against one of its licensees. (After all, how can a counselor or psychologist be trusted to care for the most vulnerable if someone feels the need to seek legal protection against them for abuse?)
In certain cases, the filing of a PFA can be completely devastating to a mental health professional's career, creating a serious gap in public trust that can be nearly impossible to get back—even if the breach in trust is undeserved. Mental health professionals should treat a PFA proceeding most seriously and a licensing proceeding over a PFA even more seriously.
Where licensed counselors deal with the vulnerabilities within individuals, social workers seek out and help the most vulnerable within our communities. They're not only trained to help with mental health issues, but they also help families in times of crisis. They may connect them with resources for financial assistance, help them find treatment programs for addictions, provide accountability during recovery processes, and even provide support for families dealing with tough issues like domestic violence and child abuse.
These roles and duties often take a social worker into the individual's home, school, medical clinic, workplace, or other locations where the social worker has unusual access to the individual and influence over the individual. Social workers may have more comprehensive knowledge and thus more control over the individuals with whom they work than any other professional. That access and influence makes the social worker's safe, sound, and trustworthy character a special concern. Indeed, social workers are often the first or last line of defense against domestic violence.
Because of the nature of the social worker's job, a PFA against a social worker could be potentially career-ending. In the eyes of the Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists and Professional Counselors, it could be seen as both ironic and hypocritical for a social worker to be labeled as a potential abuser when it is their job to help rescue people from abuse. A PFA suggests that the person is capable of both violence and abuse—two characteristics that no social worker should be associated with. Social workers thus need to take any PFA proceeding or license proceeding over a PFA most seriously.
If there's any profession where trust matters, it's that of the educator. We entrust the care of our children to teachers every day—and teachers often have more opportunity to mentor and shape the children than some parents do. Considering that many people file for PFAs against spouses and partners because of child abuse, it stands to reason that when a teacher is hit with a PFA, it can raise some serious red flags with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The teacher who ignores a PFA proceeding risks losing everything for which the teacher works.
A licensed daycare provider who is served with a PFA order is likely to be under just as much scrutiny as a teacher—and for the same reasons. Daycare providers are trusted with the care of children, and a PFA insinuates that you're not safe around children. Daycare licensing in Pennsylvania is overseen by the Department of Human Services, and they will likely raise significant concerns if a daycare provider has a PFA against them. If you are a daycare provider facing a PFA proceeding, then take that proceeding seriously. You could lose your daycare license.
The above are just some key examples of licensed professions most likely to be impacted by a PFA—but it's not an exhaustive list. A PFA carries an automatic negative connotation and potentially conveys distrust in any profession that deals with the public. Whether or not your PFA will trigger an investigation will depend largely on the policies of your licensing board, the context for the PFA, whether the circumstances of your case spark concerns with the board, and whether you made the appropriate disclosure. Be sure to do things right anytime you face a PFA proceeding or a license proceeding relating to a PFA. As a licensed professional, you have too much at stake to do otherwise.
Can an Out-of-State Restraining Order Affect My Professional License in Pennsylvania?
Yes. Out-of-state restraining orders are honored in Pennsylvania, and they can also show up on background checks when you apply for a professional license. You can also get into hot water with a licensing board in Pennsylvania if you fail to disclose to them that you have a restraining order against you in another state. Don't play cat-and-mouse with licensing boards. Instead, be upfront about the existence and status of any PFA order or proceeding. Most of all, treat your PFA proceeding and any associated license proceeding seriously. Retain attorney Joseph D. Lento for expert PFA representation.
Why is it so important to hire a good attorney to fight a Protection From Abuse order?
Because PFAs are so easy to obtain, you can easily be served with a temporary PFA without warning. Immediately you are put on the defensive because you are given only days to prepare for a formal hearing. You have basically one shot to prove to the courts that you are innocent, that this is a false accusation, that the circumstances have been misconstrued, etc. If the PFA becomes final, the chances increase exponentially that the fallout could bleed over into your career, triggering an investigation as to whether the PFA violates your professional license and whether you should be allowed to continue to work. Even worse, that PFA becomes part of official records permanently, coming back to haunt you potentially every time you apply for a job or a professional license.
Hiring an experienced Pennsylvania PFA defense attorney can greatly increase your chances of avoiding the long-term impact of a PFA. A good attorney will accompany you to your hearing armed with all available evidence and witness testimony to prove the allegations of abuse are false or grossly overstated—and therefore, the PFA is invalid. By fighting back at the PFA hearing with the help of your attorney, you can head off any long-term implications that come with a permanent PFA. By contrast, arguing effectively against a PFA is a technical and complicated task, and if you “go it alone” without an attorney, your chances of beating the PFA are slim to none. Furthermore, if you just choose not to attend the hearing, the judge will rule summarily against you by default. For these reasons, it always pays to have a skilled PFA defense lawyer at your side to defend you at the PFA hearing and protect your future.
The accusations against me are patently false. How can my accuser present enough evidence to win a permanent PFA against me?
The odds are your accuser is gambling that he/she won't have to prove it. Many times, vindictive people use the temporary PFA as “bait” to provoke the accused into another confrontation—which under the terms of the PFA would be a crime. If your accuser can get you to react by confronting them about the temporary PFA, you will have violated the law and may now face criminal charges. That reaction alone may be enough for the judge to decide to make the PFA permanent. Comply with any temporary PFA. Then get expert representation to show the judge that your temporary PFA should not become a permanent PFA.
What is the best way to respond when a temporary PFA is filed against me?
The best initial response toward your accuser is: don't. As unfair as it may seem, do not react by trying to contact the accuser when you're served with a temporary PFA. If you do, you will be violating the order and breaking the law—and that may be exactly what your accuser is hoping for.
A more constructive way to respond to a PFA—and hopefully beat it—is to take the following steps:
- Call an experienced PFA defense attorney right away. The sooner you get effective legal representation for the PFA hearing, the better your chances of obtaining a fair and favorable outcome.
- Gather evidence and witnesses to refute the accusation. You will have an opportunity to tell your side of the story at the PFA hearing. Do not waste the opportunity by coming in unprepared. Plan ahead. Determine with your attorney as to how you will respond to the claims of abuse, what you will say, and who will back you up. Witnesses tend to carry the day in contested PFA proceedings.
- Show up for the PFA hearing. As simple as it sounds, this is a critical step. Missing the hearing (even by accident) will result in a summary ruling against you and a finalizing of the PFA.
- Calmly share your side of the story with the court. Conduct yourself with the same level of professionalism that you would in the office. With your attorney's help, calmly and methodically present your case. Don't let the proceeding rile you into an angry or emotional condition. Judges watch PFA parties closely, both the accuser and the accused.
I have a PFA against me. What steps can I take to minimize the risks to my professional license?
There is no guarantee that a PFA won't at least raise some questions from your state licensing board. However, there are certain precautions you can take proactively to minimize the risk of having your license penalized, suspended, or revoked over it. Let's go over these in detail.
Hire an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to help with PFA issues.
The first proactive step to take is to make sure you have excellent legal representation at the PFA hearing. If the temporary PFA is not converted to a final PFA, you have a reduced risk that it will affect your professional license. Also, be sure to hire a good attorney when negotiating to have your PFA rescinded.
Be sure not to violate the terms of your PFA.
Although your licensing board may be concerned about the existence of a PFA, they will be even more concerned about a criminal charge, and most certainly a conviction. The best thing you can do to protect your career is to obey the terms of the PFA without fail, so it never becomes a criminal matter. Do not make contact with the other person illegally. Even if there is mutual consent between you to communicate or meet, you are still committing a crime, and you can be arrested and prosecuted—and none of that will look good in the eyes of the licensing board. Make sure the PFA is expired or rescinded before attempting to make contact with the person.
Comply with any/all reporting requirements of your state licensing board.
If a PFA is filed against you, your licensing board may require you to report it. If so, do it—even if you have concerns that it will trigger an investigation into your license. If you don't report it to the board and they find out about it some other way, they will be much more likely to impose disciplinary action against you than if you report it voluntarily.
Determine whether the court might expunge the PFA record.
Pennsylvania statutes do not make clear the grounds on which a defendant subject to a PFA order might keep others from learning of the order. Courts in some cases can seal a case's record, generally to protect the reputation of one or more of the parties. Pennsylvania courts also have certain statutory authority to expunge criminal convictions, but a PFA order is civil in nature, not a criminal conviction.
Two Pennsylvania Superior Court decisions, though, show that Pennsylvania's trial courts have some limited authority to expunge temporary PFA orders. In the 1998 case of P.E.S. v K.L., the Superior Court permitted expungement of a PFA order that had entered without either party appearing at the final hearing. In the 2002 case Carlacci v. Mazaleski, the Superior Court permitted the expungement of a temporary PFA order after the parties agreed that the trial court should treat the order as null and void. Thus, a professional may be able to expunge a PFA order that the trial court issued without any finding of abuse but should generally not expect to expunge a PFA order based on such a finding. PFA orders are to protect and alert. Their expungement generally works against those functions.
Pennsylvania PFA Lawyer Dedicated to Helping Professionals
As a licensed professional in Pennsylvania, you have put in too much work and effort on building your career to have it wiped away by a false accusation—or even a temporary lapse in judgment. Fortunately, you're not powerless in this situation. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a highly experienced defense attorney with additional experience in the world of professional licensing. He has an excellent track record not only in helping defend against PFAs but in helping to minimize the damage a PFA can have on your professional license. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 for an appointment today.