Being served with a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order in Pennsylvania is a serious matter, one that can wreak havoc on your life in many ways. You may be prohibited from having any contact with your spouse, domestic partner, or children. You may have to change your normal routines to avoid frequenting places where the protected party may also happen to be. And violating the PFA in any way can result in criminal charges in addition to any possible domestic violence charges you might be facing.
But if you're a licensed professional (e.g., doctor, nurse, CPA, counselor, pharmacist, etc.), you might not realize that a PFA can also put your professional license in jeopardy. The more proactive you can be about keeping a PFA from appearing on your public record, the better your chances of avoiding difficult consequences affecting your professional license. The Lento Law Firm has compiled the following important information so you can be well informed about the impact a PFA could have on your professional license and the steps you need to take to protect your career.
Understanding Protection From Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania
A Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) is a court order that prohibits contact between the petitioner (plaintiff) and respondent (defendant), either temporarily or permanently. This type of order is frequently requested and issued in domestic violence cases where there has been alleged abuse, stalking, harassment, sexual assault, or other types of threatening behavior. If you are the one served with a PFA, you are the defendant, and the person claiming to need protection from you is the plaintiff.
In Pennsylvania, if you are served with a PFA, it usually means that you cannot have any contact with the person who filed for the PFA against you. It may also mean that certain privileges or rights may be taken away temporarily or permanently (e.g., custody or visitation rights) depending on what the judge decides.
How PFAs Work
Most Protection from Abuse orders begin with a temporary PFA, which is requested by the plaintiff. PFAs are typically issued "ex parte,"—meaning you are not notified of the hearing nor given the right to defend yourself. The judge will determine whether the case meets the statutory criteria and if it does, he/she will issue the temporary PFA (effective immediately) and set a hearing (usually within ten days) to determine whether to convert the temporary PFA into a final PFA.
At the final PFA hearing, you'll be allowed to appear with an attorney and give your side of the story. If the judge upholds the plaintiff's argument, the final PFA will be issued and will remain in effect for up to 3 years. If not, the temporary PFA will be allowed to expire.
Who Can Legally File a PFA Petition in Pennsylvania
PFAs may be filed by anyone over the age of 18 against any family or household member, or any person with whom the plaintiff has a current or former intimate relationships. In Pennsylvania, the number of people who fall within this definition is actually fairly broad. People who may file a PFA against you include:
- Your spouse or ex-spouse (including same-sex unions)
- Domestic partner (i.e., "common law" spouse)
- Anyone related to you by blood (e.g., parents, siblings, children over 18)
- Anyone related to you by marriage (i.e., in-laws)
- Anyone with whom you share biological parenthood of a child
- Current and former dating relationships, regardless of whether or not the relationship was sexual.
Violating a PFA Order
When someone is served with a PFA order, it means that the court believes there is a potential for harm. If you violate any part of the PFA (even if you haven't been formally charged with a crime), you could be arrested and prosecuted under the criminal code for criminal contempt--and even jailed for up to 6 months. The police do not have to witness you violating the PFA in order to arrest you; they just need to believe the accusation from the plaintiff is credible. Even if the violation of the PFA was innocent, accidental, or caused by the plaintiff, you can still be arrested and possibly convicted. This is why you should carefully read the terms of a PFA when you are served and be sure you understand the actions the PFA is prohibiting. Once the PFA is served, ignorance is not considered an excuse.
How a Protection From Abuse Order Can Affect Your Professional License
A PFA can affect your license to practice in certain professions in Pennsylvania. It may also reflect badly on you if you are in the process of applying for a professional license. Medical, dental, veterinary, and other types of state licensing boards in Pennsylvania hold their licensees to certain standards of conduct and professionalism in order to maintain the public trust. While a PFA is not in itself a criminal conviction, it may be seen as a compromise of the public trust because someone apparently feels the need to request the court's protection from you. While it's unlikely that a PFA would immediately result in having your license revoked, it could trigger an investigation by the licensing board--one that could result in some sort of disciplinary action, up to and including having your license suspended or revoked.
Examples of how a PFA may put your professional license in jeopardy:
- The state licensing board observes the PFA appearing as a judgment on your public record
- Violating your PFA results in a criminal conviction, which then appears on your criminal record, and the board is notified of it
- You are required by the state licensing board to inform them of any PFAs or criminal convictions, and you fail to do so
- A colleague, patient, or someone else becomes aware of the PFA against you and files a complaint with your state's licensing board
Does a PFA Show up on a Criminal Background Check?
No, it doesn't. A PFA is a civil order, so it does not go on your criminal record and won't show up in standard criminal background checks. The primary exception to this rule is if you are convicted of violating the PFA, at which point a criminal contempt conviction will appear on your criminal background check.
That being said, the PFA is still a matter of public record, and therefore it may show up on a public records check—which can also work against you if your state's licensing board pulls these records.
What Happens if My Licensing Board Takes Issue With My PFA?
If the state licensing board for your profession believes the PFA violates the public trust and is otherwise a cause for concern, they may move forward with the license disciplinary process as prescribed by their policies. While every board operates by its own rules, in most cases, the process goes as follows:
- Investigation. The board will investigate the presence of the PFA and explore the context to determine whether it merits further action. You may be given the opportunity to provide a written explanation; the board may also investigate further by requesting documents, interviewing witnesses, etc.
- Consent decree. If the investigation produces additional evidence of wrongdoing or creates further concern regarding the PFA, the board may offer to waive a formal hearing and have you sign a consent decree instead. This is a formal agreement between the state and you in which you acknowledge wrongdoing and voluntarily accept the board's recommended disciplinary action.
- Formal hearing. If you don't sign a consent decree or one is not offered, you may be summoned for a formal hearing before the board—or possibly before an Administrative Law Judge—to answer the complaint and present your defense. You may have an attorney represent you during these proceedings.
- Board action. The board will make a final decision as to whether or not to impose sanctions or penalties against you—up to and including having your license suspended or revoked.
If the Board Decides to Invoke Disciplinary Action Over My PFA, Will I Lose My Professional License Automatically?
Not necessarily. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the PFA, the board might opt to impose lower penalties like fines, restrictions on activities, mandatory continuing education, mandatory probation, and formal reprimands. If the PFA resulted from other issues such as substance abuse, the board may allow you to complete a prescribed treatment program while allowing you to keep your license. However, if the board finds you less than cooperative or forthcoming in this matter—for example if you were required to report the PFA to the board and failed to do so—they may be more inclined to revoke your license.
Can a PFA Damage My Professional Career Even if I Get to Keep My License?
Potentially, yes. First, if the board does decide to take action against you, it will likely appear on your public professional record (including the reason for the disciplinary action) even if you're allowed to continue practicing. This could affect your credibility with patients, clients, colleagues, and potential employers. Second, while the PFA itself won't show up in any criminal background checks or typical public records, PFA records, including any records related to a hearing disposition, remain on file in civil court records which may be available for public access. While it's unlikely any employer or client would search this deeply, the record remains available nonetheless.
I Had a Temporary PFA Issued Against Me That Was Not Finalized. Will it Still Show up on My Public Record?
A temporary PFA will likely not show up in any typical background check. However, unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, any petition and PFA issued against you remains publicly accessible / visible in civil court records, even if the PFA is ultimately dismissed or withdrawn. Under normal circumstances, this may not cause problems with the licensing board, but if, for example, the board is already investigating your license and decides to search the court records, the PFA records will appear. A separate consideration, however, is that you also will need to bear in mind the possibility that your professional licensing board requires disclosure to the board of a temporary PFA upon notice to you. If this is the case, you have an affirmative obligation to disclose the issuance of the temporary PFA to your board, and if you fail to do so, this will be grounds for separate discipline.
If a Final PFA Against Me Is Allowed to Expire, Will it Still Remain on My Public Record?
Yes. The expiration of a final PFA does not remove it from your publically-accessible / viewable record. Unless you file a successful petition to have the record sealed (which is only applicable to a final PFA order entered without admission and when other conditions are met, including the passage of ten years), it remains on your record indefinitely.
Could the State Licensing Board Still Take Disciplinary Action Against My License Over a PFA Even if I Was Ultimately Exonerated?
Yes. State licensing boards don't have the same burden of proof as a plaintiff filing a civil petition against you or a prosecutor pressing criminal charges. The licensing board's job is to safeguard the public by only extending licenses to individuals they consider to be duly qualified and worthy of the public trust. Even if the PFA is withdrawn or dismissed, the very existence of a PFA could cast doubt on your professional credibility and suggest that you haven't lived up to the public trust. It won't be automatic grounds for losing your license, and a good attorney may be able to intervene on your behalf--but any PFA could still trigger an investigation.
What Are the Options for Keeping a PFA Order From Negatively Affecting My Professional License?
All the information we've shared above could easily make you feel like getting a PFA against you is a death sentence to your career. However, that's far from the case. With the help of an experienced attorney, you do have a number of reasonable options for safeguarding your professional license if someone files a PFA order against you. Let's look at these options now.
Contesting a PFA Order at the Final Hearing
There's not much you can do to prevent a temporary Protection from Abuse Order from being issued against you. The judge issues this order "ex parte" if the petitioner convinces the judge that the case qualifies for a PFA and that you are a potential threat. However, within ten days of the temporary PFA, there will be a hearing to determine whether or not to make the PFA final. You will be notified of the date, time, and location of this hearing when you are served with the temporary PFA. At this hearing, you will have the chance to contest the PFA, bring your own attorney, present your own evidence, and cross-examine witnesses. Your goal is to convince the judge that the PFA is unnecessary so that the order is not finalized. A temporary PFA that was never finalized is easier to explain to a licensing board than one that was finalized. A good PFA defense attorney will be able to help you develop the most convincing argument possible in the hope of having the PFA ultimately dismissed.
Appealing the PFA Order
If the temporary PFA becomes a final PFA, you still have the option to appeal the decision. There are two ways to accomplish this:
- You may file a Motion for Reconsideration in the same court where your PFA was issued. In this motion, your attorney will argue that you were wrongfully convicted by the judge and explain the reasons why. You must file this motion within ten days of the PFA being finalized.
- You may file a formal appeal of the final PFA to Superior Court. This appeal must be filed by your attorney within 30 days of the finalized PFA. Your attorney will argue in the appeal that the judge either made a mistake of law or a mistake of fact. If the Superior Court judge agrees, the PFA may be overturned.
It can be very challenging to successfully appeal a finalized PFA, and your attorney will need to make very compelling arguments for it to happen. Your best option for having a PFA dismissed is to contest it successfully at the final hearing.
Having the PFA Vacated
Another option for rescinding a Protection from Abuse Order is to have it vacated before its expiration date. Getting a PFA vacated can be a delicate process because only the petitioner (plaintiff) can request that the PFA be vacated, and since you are likely barred from contact with the petitioner, you don't have many options for convincing them directly. That said, the petitioner may choose to vacate the PFA if a) they no longer consider you a threat; or b) they decide on their own that the PFA was an overreach. Honoring the terms of your PFA to the letter is ultimately the best way to convince the petitioner that you are not a threat--and your attorney may have some suggestions as to how to extend an olive branch to the petitioner without violating your PFA.
Having Your PFA Record Expunged
If you are successful in contesting your temporary PFA at the final hearing and/or the petitioner drops the complaint before the PFA becomes finalized, the PFA still remains on your publically accessible / viewable record, and thus it can still cause problems with your professional license if your licensing board raises concerns about it. One option for preventing this outcome is to have your attorney petition the court to have your PFA record expunged.
Currently, in Pennsylvania, expungement is a more difficult and complicated process for PFAs than it is even for certain criminal offenses. If, for example, your PFA becomes final, there is no legal mechanism in place for having the record expunged even after the PFA expires or if it is vacated. Effectively, it remains on your record forever and cannot be expunged.
However, in a court case known as Commonwealth vs. Charnik, the courts clarified that it is possible to have a PFA expunged under two circumstances:
- If the petition for the PFA was dismissed before it became final; and
- If the petition for the PFA was withdrawn by the petitioner before it became final (for example, they had a change of heart, or you were able to reconcile).
An expungement of a PFA can be very helpful for you as a professional license holder because it removes all mentions of it from any records which may be obtained by the public—and therefore removes the opportunity for the licensing board to see it and take issue with it. However, PFA expungements can be difficult to obtain, and it typically takes the help of a very skilled attorney to get them done.
Having Your PFA Record Sealed
Due to a change in Pennsylvania law in 2019 under Title 23 of section 6108.7 of the Protection from Abuse Statute, the other option that may be available to a PFA defendant is to seek that their PFA records be sealed.
This option is only available to a defendant who agreed to a final PFA without admission (meaning the final order was not issued after a hearing on the merits). Other conditions also have to be met for a defendant to seek a sealing of the records, including the passage of ten years with there being no issues between the plaintiff and the defendant. Although this is an "option", most PFA defendants will not be able to see much benefit from this change to Pennsylvania law as the conditions to obtain a sealing of a final PFA order are highly-specific. A successful sealing will do as the name implies - "seal" the record from public access or view. Sealed PFA records would still exist, but would only be accessible to certain law enforcement and government agencies, including professional licensing boards.
The specific conditions that must be met for a final PFA to be sealed in Pennsylvania follow below:
(1) The consent agreement for which the individual seeks relief under this section is the only such consent agreement to which the individual has ever been subject and that, during the period in which the consent agreement was in effect, the individual did not violate an order or consent agreement under section 6108.
(2) A period of at least ten years has elapsed since the expiration of the consent agreement.
(3) The individual has not been subject to another final protection from abuse order under section 6108.
(4) The individual has not been convicted of one of the following offenses where the victim is a family or household member:
(i) An offense set forth in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2711 (relating to probable cause arrests in domestic violence cases).
(ii) An offense equivalent to subparagraph (i) under the laws of the United States or one of its territories or possessions, another state, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico or a foreign nation
Addressing the PFA Issue Directly With Your Licensing Board
Since having a Protection from Abuse order dismissed or vacated does not remove it from your record, and since expungements for PFAs are rare, the most likely option you have for protecting your license is to address the licensing board's concerns directly if and when it becomes a matter of concern. If a PFA triggers an investigation or inquiry from your state's licensing board, your best hope of a favorable outcome is to hire an experienced professional license defense attorney to represent your interests before the board. A good attorney will understand how the disciplinary process works and how to present compelling arguments to dissuade the board from taking adverse actions against you--or at least to minimize the damage. If you have been successful at having the PFA dismissed before it became final—or vacated once it had been finalized--your attorney can present the argument that the PFA was unfair or illegitimate, or that you took necessary steps to right the wrongs, which is more likely to result in a dismissal of the complaint against you.
There's no doubt that being hit with a Protection from Abuse order (even a temporary one) can cause problems with your professional license. Unfortunately, the state's laws don't have mechanisms in place to protect you from repercussions even if the PFA is completely unfair or un-called-for, and even if it is ultimately dismissed. However, by being as proactive as possible, you do have options for protecting your license if a PFA creates trouble for you.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have unparalleled experience helping clients successfully fight PFA orders, and he also has vast experience representing licensed professionals in front of their respective licensing boards. Don't let a PFA jeopardize your livelihood or your career. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or email us to see how we can help.