In very tangible ways, people entrust doctors with their lives on a daily basis. Having this level of public trust means licensed physicians are expected to maintain the highest standards of ethical and professional excellence. Every doctor takes what is known as the Hippocratic Oath (“First do no harm.”) That's why it can be absolutely devastating for a doctor to be served with a Protection from Abuse (PFA) Order in Pennsylvania. Even if the allegations are false and the PFA is unfounded, the very idea that such a restraining order is necessary suggests a serious violation of the oath by which every licensed physician is bound.
Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine sees things that way, as well. If you are licensed to practice medicine in Pennsylvania, being hit with a PFA order can have potentially serious consequences both personally and professionally. Not only could you be banned from any contact with your spouse or partner, and not only could you potentially be restricted from contact with your children, but your very career could also hang in the balance. If a PFA triggers an investigation by the Board of Medicine, your license to practice could be suspended or revoked. To make matters worse, the threat of disciplinary action against your license may linger even after your PFA expires or is dismissed—because, in Pennsylvania, a PFA stays on your record indefinitely.
The good news is that by being proactive, you may be able to avert serious consequences from the effects of a PFA. With the help of a good Pennsylvania defense attorney like Joseph D. Lento, you can take steps now to fight your PFA and minimize the damage to your career. To help you understand the possible impact of a PFA upon your medical license, and what steps you should take to prevent that impact, the Lento Law Firm provides the following information.
Understanding Protection From Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania
A Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) is a civil court order in Pennsylvania frequently issued in connection with cases of domestic violence, stalking, harassment, threatening behaviors, and other forms of abuse against partners or relatives. The PFA prohibits the defendant (aka, the respondent) from having contact with the plaintiff (aka, petitioner).
The ramifications of being served with a PFA can be quite broad. While the PFA is in effect, you may have to go out of your way to avoid contact with the person who filed it—including changing your daily routine and the places you would normally. You may also (at least temporarily) lose custody or visitation privileges with your children. And if you are a licensed physician, a PFA could trigger an investigation into your license.
What Happens if You Violate a PFA Order
A PFA order is a civil matter, not a criminal matter, and you may be served with a PFA even if you're not facing additional criminal charges related to domestic violence. But if the PFA is not followed to the letter, it could result in criminal contempt charges resulting in fines and even jail time if you are convicted. Additionally, a conviction will result in you having a criminal record, which could cause additional complications with your professional license.
It's important to note that violating a PFA order is easier to do than it seems—and it can even happen inadvertently or by accident. If, for example, you and your spouse go to the same grocery store or hang out at the same restaurant, you could be violating the PFA just by sharing the same space at the same time. If the petitioner reports to police that you have violated the PFA, they don't need to see it happen in order to arrest you--they only need probable cause. This is why it's so essential to obey a PFA to the letter while it's in effect--and why it's so important to contest an unfair PFA to avert the possibility of cascading consequences, especially for your career.
Who Can File a PFA Petition in Pennsylvania
Any person over 18 may file a PFA against any household member or someone with whom they are in an intimate relationship. This definition includes:
- Spouses (including same-sex spouses)
- Domestic partners
- Anyone related by blood (e.g., parents, siblings, grandparents, children over 18 years old)
- Any person who is related to you by marriage (i.e., in-laws)
- Anyone with whom you share the biological parentage of a child
- Current and past intimate or dating relationships
What to Expect When a PFA is Filed Against You
The first step is that you will receive notice of the filing of a Protection from Abuse Order, along with a copy of the order itself—all served by an official from the local Sheriff's Office or police department. Because this document includes your name and the county in which it was served, you should expect that all your family members and coworkers will also be informed—and that news of the PFA could quickly spread throughout your community.
In most cases, the first step is for the petitioner to request a temporary or emergency PFA. This temporary PFA is granted "ex parte," which means without your presence. As the defendant, you will not be told about the hearing and will not have the opportunity to present your argument. The judge will decide whether or not the circumstances qualify for a temporary PFA.
If a temporary PFA is issued, it takes effect immediately. You will receive notice of the filing of a Protection from Abuse Order, along with a copy of the order itself—all served by an official from the local Sheriff's Office or police department. You'll also be notified of the date and time of the final hearing (usually within ten days), at which point the judge will decide whether to make the PFA final. At this hearing, you will be allowed to appear with your attorney and present your side of the story, along with any evidence and witnesses. If the judge deems that the PFA is warranted, it will become a final PFA, which stays in effect for up to three years.
Can My PFA Be Found on a Criminal Background Check?
No. The PFA is a civil order, which means it won't appear on your criminal record unless it has been violated and triggered a criminal contempt charge. However, the PFA is still part of public court records and could turn up in a public records search. If the State Board of Medicine pulls these documents, this could trigger an investigation.
A Temporary PFA Was Issued Against Me, But It Was Not Finalized. Is It Still on My Public Record?
Yes. Unfortunately, a Protection from Abuse Order is visible indefinitely in public records of court even if it has been withdrawn or dismissed. This could come back to haunt you at some point.
Will My Final PFA Remain Visible on My Record After the PFA Expires?
Yes. A final PFA will remain on your record indefinitely.
Is There Any Way To Expunge a PFA From My Record?
In limited cases, with the help of a skilled attorney, you may be able to request that a temporary PFA be expunged from your record, provided the temporary PFA was never finalized. Once it is made final, Pennsylvania law affords no way for it to be removed at the current time.
How a PFA Could Impact Your Medical License
If you are a licensed physician in Pennsylvania, your medical license is your most important asset. It allows you to practice medicine legally in the state of Pennsylvania—and it's the document that provides proof of your professional qualification.
Unfortunately, being served with a Protection from Abuse Order may trigger an investigation into your medical license by the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine, leading to disciplinary action that could ultimately result in its suspension or revocation. You should know that any PFA that results from a domestic abuse claim is considered to be especially egregious—which means that even if you are later cleared of all charges, the PFA will still have been recorded on your public record.
Pennsylvania's licensed physicians must uphold high standards of professionalism, ethics, and conduct on the job. The State Board of Medicine is obliged to investigate all allegations of misconduct, unprofessional behavior, and crimes of moral turpitude. Although a PFA does not constitute a criminal conviction, it can be viewed as a compromise of public trust because the PFA indicates that someone believes you are dangerous, and the court has issued an order in response to that person. If the Board of Medicine investigates and finds that PFA order to be credible, it could lead to license suspension, revocation, or other forms of discipline.
These are just a few examples of how a PFA could ultimately threaten your medical license:
- The Board of Medicine observes the PFA in your public record and initiates an investigation.
- You are convicted for violating your PFA, and the conviction is reported to the State Board of Medicine.
- You were required to notify the board of the existence of your PFA and failed to do so.
- A colleague, patient, or any other person who becomes aware of the protective order might file a complaint with the Board of Medicine.
What Steps Could the Medical Licensing Board Take Against Me?
The Pennsylvania Board of Medicine will examine the context of your PFA and, if they feel it is a violation of public trust, may initiate disciplinary action against you. There are several steps to the disciplinary process:
- The board will investigate the matter and decide if further action is required. At this stage, the board might invite you to submit a written explanation of the PFA. They might also ask for other documents or interview witnesses.
- The board may offer a consent decree. If the board believes disciplinary action is in order, it may forego a formal hearing and instead offer to have you sign a consent decree. This is a formal agreement in which you voluntarily admit wrongdoing and agree to submit to the prescribed disciplinary action.
- The board may call a formal hearing. If the matter progresses to the hearing phase, you will appear before the Board of Medicine or before an Administrative Law Judge to answer the complaint against you. An attorney may represent you during these proceedings.
- The board makes a final determination. The Board of Medicine will decide whether to impose sanctions on you, up to and including suspending or revoking your license to practice medicine.
Are There Alternatives To Losing My License to Practice if the Board Takes Action Against Me?
Yes. Having your license revoked is the most severe penalty the board may invoke, but there are other, lesser penalties that may allow you to keep your license. Examples may include fines, probation, mandatory counseling, formal reprimands, etc. There may be numerous opportunities in the disciplinary process for you and your attorney to convince the board to agree to a lesser penalty that allows you to continue practicing medicine.
If I Avoid Having My License Revoked, Could a PFA Still Damage My Medical Career?
Yes. Any disciplinary action taken by the board (even lesser penalties) may still be visible on your public professional record. In addition, the PFA order itself will also appear on your public record and may show up in certain background checks. Any patients, clients, colleagues, and potential employers who search these records may see these marks against you, and it could influence their decision to work with you.
Can the Board of Medicine Still Pursue My License Even if My PFA Is Canceled or Dismissed?
Yes, if the Board of Medicine interprets your PFA record as a "red flag." The Board of Medicine is responsible for protecting the public by only granting licenses to qualified and worthy individuals. Your trustworthiness may be questioned if you have any PFA. It's easier to explain to the Board of Medicine why you were exonerated than to prove your innocence. A good attorney might be able to help clarify any confusion. If a PFA appears on your record, be ready for an inquiry.
Options for Protecting Your Medical License from Damage due to a PFA Order
A Protection from Abuse Order can wreak havoc on your personal and professional life in many ways, but there are still steps you can take to protect your medical career if someone files a PFA against you. A skilled attorney will be able to advise you on the best course of action, but here is a brief overview of your options.
Contest the PFA Order
You can't stop a temporary PFA from taking effect because it will be issued without your involvement. However, within ten days of the temporary PFA, you will have the opportunity to contest the PFA order at a formal hearing. At this hearing, in which you're encouraged to appear with an attorney, you'll be able to present your defense, submit evidence to support your arguments, bring witnesses, and cross-examine the petitioner's witnesses. The judge will dismiss the PFA at this time if you make a compelling enough case that the PFA was unnecessary or incorrectly imposed. Dismissing the PFA won't automatically remove it from your record, but if it triggers an investigation into your license, it will be easier to alleviate the board's concerns if the PFA was dismissed or not finalized.
Have the PFA Order Vacated
If the person who requested the PFA has a change of heart about it, decides to reconcile, or no longer considers you a threat, they may request to have the PFA order vacated (canceled). Since the PFA order, by definition, prevents you from contacting the petitioner directly (talk to your attorney about this), but if the petitioner is willing to request it, the court is likely to honor it. Again, this won't erase the PFA from your record, but a PFA that has been voluntarily vacated is still easier to explain to the Board of Medicine if any issues arise.
Appeal the PFA Order
If the judge makes the PFA final, you still have the ability to appeal the PFA and try to overturn it. You can do so in two ways:
- File a Motion for Reconsideration. You'll have ten days after the PFA becomes final to file this motion with the court that decided your case. In the Motion for Reconsideration, your attorney must present arguments as to why the PFA was wrongfully imposed.
- Submit a formal appeal to the Superior Court. You have 30 days to file this appeal, and your attorney will need to show how the judge made either a mistake of law or a mistake in fact in finalizing the PFA.
Keep in mind that the majority of appeals against finalized PFAs will fail. However, if your attorney can present a very compelling argument for overturning it, it might be worth attempting to appeal it especially considering the damage it could do to your medical license.
Request an Expungement of Your PFA
Because a PFA can be initiated against you without your input, there's effectively no way to prevent a PFA from appearing on your public record. However, if the temporary PFA is never finalized, your attorney can petition the court to have the PFA expunged from your record.
Options for expunging PFAs in Pennsylvania are currently quite limited. According to the court case Commonwealth v. Charnik, a temporary PFA can only be expunged if a) If the temporary PFA is not finalized (i.e., allowed to expire); or b) If the petitioner withdraws the PFA petition (e.g., if they changed their mind). There is currently no mechanism in Pennsylvania for expunging a PFA once it is finalized, even after the PFA itself expires.
There is no automatic expungement of any PFA, and if you petition the court, there is no guarantee that your expungement will be granted. If your attorney succeeds in petitioning the court for an expungement, all mentions of the PFA will be removed from your public record. This will reduce the chances that it will raise concerns with the State Board of Medicine.
Address the PFA Issue Directly With the Board of Medicine
While the options above can help your situation, in most cases, your best option to minimize the damage of a Protection from Abuse Order is to respond to the matter directly with the Board of Medicine if they raise an issue about it. It is best to have a professional license defense lawyer help you with this process. A skilled lawyer can help you successfully navigate any investigation and disciplinary processes, as well as negotiate directly with the board on your behalf to show that the PFA does not impact your abilities to perform your duties as a licensed physician. The attorney can also present evidence if the PFA was unfairly issued or dismissed. In many cases, being proactive about your PFA with the Medical Board can help you avoid losing your license over it. Failing to respond, however, could put you in serious jeopardy.
While a Protection from Abuse Order may cause serious problems for you professionally as a doctor, it does not have to signal the end of your career. The more you can do upfront to contest the PFA or have it dismissed, the less likely it is to impact your professional license--especially with a skilled Pennsylvania defense attorney in your corner. Joseph D. Lento is an experienced attorney with years of experience defending clients who have been served with PFAs. He also has experience as a license defense attorney, so if your PFA triggers an investigation by the Board of Medicine, he can work to minimize the damage done to your license. Take steps now to safeguard your career and your future. To learn more, call the Lento Law office at 888-535-3686.