A career as a pharmacist is one of public trust. Every day, millions of people put their lives in the hands of pharmacists, trusting them to get their medications right. We trust pharmacists to "do no harm" in much the same way that we trust doctors—and the state boards that issue pharmacists' licenses are very sensitive to this. That's why it can be devastating to you as a licensed pharmacist to be hit with a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order in Pennsylvania. Not only can a PFA disrupt your family, your routine, and your life in general—it can also do damage to your career if the PFA triggers an investigation by the State Board of Pharmacy.
A PFA can bar you from contact with your spouse, partner, or children—and violating the PFA is a crime punishable by jail. And a PFA puts a bad mark on your public record. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The PFA could also prompt the Pennsylvania State Board of Pharmacy to conduct an investigation, and your pharmacist's license could ultimately be suspended or revoked unless you take steps to prevent it.
The good news is that you don't have to sit by and be a victim. By being proactive in responding to a PFA, you may be able to avoid serious consequences to your career. Joseph D. Lento is a Pennsylvania defense attorney with extensive experience navigating PFA cases for his clients. This article explains the PFA process in Pennsylvania and outlines what you can do if you are served with a Protection from Abuse Order.
Overview of Protection From Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania
Protect from Abuse Orders (PFA) are civil court orders in Pennsylvania that are often issued in cases of domestic violence or stalking, harassment, threats, or other abuses against relatives and partners. The PFA forbids the defendant (respondent) to have contact with the plaintiff (petitioner). A PFA can also require a defendant to move out of a shared residence and stay away from the home, award temporary custody of children to the plaintiff, forbid the defendant from contacting the plaintiff at work or school, and even force the defendant to turn over any firearms they may have.
A PFA can be requested by anyone over age 18 against any household member or anyone with whom they are intimately related. This includes:
- Spouses (including same-sex spouses)
- Domestic partners
- Any person related by blood (e.g., Parents, siblings, grandparents, and children over 18 years of age
- Any person related through marriage (i.e., in-laws)
- Biological parents of a child
- Anyone they are dating or have dated
A Protection from Abuse Order is intended to benefit victims of domestic violence by providing them with legal protection from their abusers--but unfortunately, it can also cause lasting negative impacts to the defendant before they can even respond to the claims. A simple misunderstanding or even a false accusation can result in a permanent mark on your public record if you are served even with a temporary PFA.
A PFA can be very disruptive to your life—after all, it now requires you to avoid contact with someone with whom you are usually close. You may need to find a new place to live and change your routine, so you don't inadvertently run into your spouse or significant other. Your visitation and custody rights with your children may be affected. And regrettably, the PFA could also trigger an investigation into your pharmacist's license.
Consequences for Violating a PFA Order in Pennsylvania
The consequences of violating a PFA in Pennsylvania are serious. A defendant who violates the PFA can be charged with a misdemeanor, resulting in fines up to $1000 and up to six months in jail. A conviction can also result in a criminal record that could further impact your license to work as a pharmacist since criminal convictions can be grounds for having your license revoked in Pennsylvania.
It's worth mentioning that violating a PFA order is easier than you think, and it can be done inadvertently or by accident. You could be breaking the PFA if you and the petitioner shop at the same supermarket, for example, or eat at the same restaurant. Furthermore, you can be arrested for violating the PFA even if law enforcement doesn't see it happening--all they need is probable cause. It is important that you follow a PFA to letter while it is in effect.
What Happens When a PFA Is Filed Against You
In most cases, the process of obtaining a Protection from Abuse Order begins with the petitioner requesting an immediate temporary PFA from a judge. This order is issued "ex parte," meaning without your presence, and you won't have a say in whether it is issued—the judge will simply order it on the petitioner's word if the situation meets the criteria. At that point, you will be served a copy of the order by local law enforcement, along with notice of an upcoming hearing before a judge within the next ten days. A temporary PFA takes effect immediately and requires you to avoid contact with the petitioner—including moving out of your home if you cohabitate with the petitioner.
The next step is the final hearing, at which the judge will consider both sides of the case and determine whether to issue a final PFA. You're strongly encouraged to appear at this hearing and present your side of the story--otherwise, the judge will rule summarily against you. You may be represented by an attorney, present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, etc. After both sides have presented their case, the judge will rule to either dismiss the temporary PFA or issue a final PFA, which will stay in effect for up to three years.
If the judge issues a final PFA, you will still have some appeal rights, so it is always best to seek knowledgeable legal advice.
The Effect of a PFA on Pharmacists in Pennsylvania
Unfortunately, having an active Protection from Abuse Order against you can trigger licensing board investigations into your pharmacist's license, even if criminal charges are never filed. Pharmacists in PA are expected to live up to high professional and ethical standards. The Pennsylvania State Board of Pharmacy, in particular, takes a very proactive approach to discipline and may investigate even if they aren't presented with evidence that you've engaged in criminal activity. The existence of a protective order in itself suggests that your credibility and trustworthiness as a licensed pharmacist is questionable, at best.
If the board notifies you of an investigation into your pharmacist's license, it's critical for you to respond, preferably with the help of an attorney. You need to take every opportunity available to provide context for what happened and why the PFA exists. Taking a passive approach could easily result in having your pharmacist's license suspended or revoked.
How Can a Protection From Abuse Order Trigger an Investigation of My Pharmacist's License?
The existence of a PFA, even a temporary one, can threaten your pharmacist's license in a number of ways. Some examples of what might trigger an investigation:
- The Board of Pharmacy sees the PFA in your public records and initiates an investigation.
- You have a requirement to notify the board of the PFA and any related arrests, and you failed to do this.
- You violated your PFA and were arrested and/or convicted of contempt--and your criminal record triggered the investigation.
- Any colleague, patient, or another person who is aware of the protective order may file a complaint to the State Board of Pharmacy.
What Happens in a Professional License Investigation
If the board initiates an investigation into your pharmacist's license over a PFA, the board will make every effort to contact you and get your version of events. You may speak with an investigator during this time or choose to be represented by an attorney. The board will also review any relevant criminal records and take other evidence into consideration before making a final decision about your pharmacist's license.
The disciplinary process involves several steps in progression:
- Review and investigation. The board will review the matter in context and determine if further action is necessary. You will likely be asked to provide a written explanation about the PFA. The board may also review other documents, interview witnesses, etc. If the board is satisfied with your explanation or finds no other evidence that your standing as a pharmacist is jeopardized, they may drop the matter at this point.
- Consent decree. If the board feels disciplinary action is needed, they may offer you a consent decree as an alternative to taking you through a formal hearing. This is a formal agreement where you voluntarily admit to wrongdoing and agree that you will submit to the board's recommended disciplinary action. This is effectively an admission of guilt and may show up on your professional record, but in some cases, it may be preferable to going to a formal hearing, especially if the action allows you to keep your pharmacist's license.
- Hearing. If the matter moves to the hearing phase, you will be appearing before the Board of Pharmacy and/or before an Administrative Law Judge to answer the complaint against you. During these proceedings, you may have an attorney represent you.
- Final determination and action. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Board of Pharmacy will make a final decision whether to impose sanctions or disciplinary actions against your license, up to and including suspending or revoking it.
Are There Any Alternatives To Losing My License if the Board Invokes Discipline Over My PFA?
Yes. Losing your license is only one of several possible outcomes, albeit the most severe. If the Board of Pharmacy can be convinced that this action is too severe, they may agree to lesser sanctions such as probation, fines, restrictions on your license, a formal reprimand, etc.--any/all of which would allow you to keep practicing. A good attorney can intervene in this process to negotiate for leniency and the least amount of damage to your career.
If I'm Allowed To Keep My Pharmacist's License, Could the PFA Still Harm My Career?
Yes, it could. Even if you don't lose your license over it, any disciplinary action taken by the Board of Pharmacy could still be visible on your professional record, potentially impacting your relationships with customers, colleagues, or potential employers. Furthermore, the PFA order itself is a matter of public record and may show up on certain background checks.
Does the PFA Show Up on a Criminal Background Check?
No. Protection from Abuse Orders are civil actions, and as such, they don't appear on your criminal record--although, if you violate the order, any subsequent criminal convictions will become part of your criminal record. However, the PFA will still show up in civil court records, so it may be visible in other types of records searches.
Does a PFA Still Show Up on My Record if It Was Only a Temporary PFA and Was Not Finalized?
Yes, it does. In Pennsylvania, the issuance of a temporary PFA shows up on your record even if the PFA is ultimately dismissed.
Will My Final PFA Stay On My Record Even After It Expires?
Yes, it will. A final PFA stays on your public record indefinitely, and it can potentially cause problems with a licensing board years after the incident occurred.
Is It Possible To Have a PFA Expunged From My Record?
Only in certain cases. If the PFA was a temporary order that was not finalized, you can petition the court to have it removed from your record--although there are no guarantees. It's best to have an attorney manage this process for you for the best results. Pennsylvania law does not currently allow for the expungement of a PFA once it has been made final.
My PFA Was Dismissed And/or Never Finalized. Could It Still Land Me in Hot Water With the Board of Pharmacy?
Yes, it could. The Board of Pharmacy has the responsibility of protecting the public and licensing only individuals deemed to be qualified and trustworthy. By its very nature, a Protection from Abuse Order suggests otherwise because it says someone has at some point identified you as a threat to their safety, and the court agreed with that assessment. At the very least, a PFA on your record could cause the Board of Pharmacy to raise questions. That said, it's not a guarantee that you will face disciplinary action, especially if you and your attorney can provide a viable explanation as to why the PFA was issued and why it was dismissed.
Options for Protecting Your Pharmacist's License From Damage Due to a PFA Order
Although a Protection from Abuse Order can have a devastating effect on your professional and personal life, there are steps you can take proactively to safeguard yourself if someone files a PFA against you. An experienced attorney can advise you on whether one or more of the following options works best for your situation.
Contest the PFA
Within ten days of a temporary PFA being issued, you will have the opportunity to contest the PFA at a formal hearing. You may have legal representation at this hearing, present your side of the story, provide evidence, and even bring witnesses. This is your best chance to convince the judge that the temporary PFA is unnecessary and should not be finalized. Although successfully contesting a PFA won't remove it from your record, it is much easier to defend a temporary PFA that was dismissed if the Board of Pharmacy raises questions about it.
Have the PFA Vacated
If the person who filed the PFA against you has a change of heart, they can request the court to vacate the PFA even after it becomes a final PFA. While only the petitioner can initiate this process (and you probably can't ask them directly due to restricted contact), a vacated PFA may be easier to explain to the board than one that stays in effect.
Appeal the Final PFA
If the judge issues a final PFA against you, you still have two legal options for appealing and possibly overturning it:
- You can file a Motion for Reconsideration. The court that ruled on your case will give you a period of 10 days to file a Motion for Reconsideration. Your attorney must present a compelling argument why the PFA was not properly imposed.
- You can formally appeal the decision to the Superior Court. In this case, your attorney must demonstrate that the judge who issued the PFA made a mistake of law or a mistake in fact. You'll have 30 days from the date the PFA is issued to file this appeal.
Bear in mind that once a PFA is finalized, appeals are rarely successful. However, if your attorney can present a strong argument that the PFA was issued erroneously, it might be worth attempting. Again, if the PFA raises issues with the licensing board, it will be easier to defend if the PFA was dismissed or overturned.
Request an Expungement of the PFA
It may seem unfair, but under Pennsylvania law, not only can a temporary PFA be filed against you without your input, but once it's been filed, it stays on your public record indefinitely. Defendants once had few options for having this record expunged, but a court case called Commonwealth v. Charnik helped clarify the law somewhat on this issue.
As it currently stands, you may petition the court to have your PFA record expunged only if:
- It was a temporary PFA that was never finalized; or
- It was a temporary PFA that was withdrawn by the petitioner (i.e., they changed their mind).
Once a PFA is finalized, it cannot be expunged from your record under current Pennsylvania law.
There are no automatic expungements for temporary PFAs, and there are no guarantees that your request for an expungement will be honored. But if your petition is successful, all mention of the PFA will be stricken from your record and will be hidden from any record searches conducted by the Board of Pharmacy.
Address the Board's Concerns Directly
All other options aside, and regardless of whether they are successful... the most common way to deal with the professional repercussions of a PFA is to address the matter directly with the state licensing board if the PFA triggers an investigation. Having a professional license defense attorney can be indispensable during this process. A good lawyer can advise you as to the best strategies to respond to any complaints or concerns, as well as negotiate with the Board of Pharmacy for the best possible outcome. In many cases, if not most, having the help of a seasoned attorney can help you avoid losing your pharmacist's license over a PFA.
Your pharmacist's license is the key to your livelihood. If you are served with a Protection from Abuse Order, the last thing you want to do is be passive. A PFA can create problems for you with the board, but it doesn't have to mean the end of your career—especially if you take steps to get ahead of the damage. With a Pennsylvania defense attorney on your side, it's possible to fight the PFA or get it dismissed.
Joseph D. Lento is an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney who has successfully helped many clients fight unfair PFAs. He also is experienced in professional license defense, which means he can also help you address any concerns raised by the State Board of Pharmacy. If you have been served with a Protection from Abuse Order, take action now to protect your career.
To learn more, call the Lento Law office at 888-535-3686.