Years of experience have taught me that there is a rule of diminishing returns in licensing law. In general, the earlier in the development of a problem that I intervene, the more effective I can be in limiting damage to a license or license application. Two examples of this principle transpired in the last 24 hours at the office, when two different criminal defense attorneys called me for advice on how to be resolve criminal cases for their professional clients to minimize license discipline. A simple 15 minute conversation today can yield a greater benefit than 150 hours of work on an appeal years in the future.
This particular issue cuts to the heart of licensing law. Clients contact our firm seeking solutions to their licensing problems. Typically, the further along their case is, the more difficult the task of containing the damage to their license and reputation can be. For this reason, a client who has been previously denied a license (after going through the entire process from application to decision after hearing) may hire us even before their very first communication with the licensing agency, to insure that every step is taken to maximize success.
The first critical point in a licensing matter is that first communication with the licensing agency – either a mandated disclosure or response to an agency inquiry. If that opportunity to say and do the right things is missed, the next critical point is at receipt of an accusation or application denial. At that point, there still is typically ample time to take rehabilitative actions and identify mitigating evidence that can change the result of an administrative hearing. As the administrative hearing approaches, though, for many licensees or license applicants, opportunities begin to be lost, then this process accelerates.
Once the administrative hearing is concluded, the die begins to be cast. Unfortunately, it is often only after the licensee or applicant walks out of their hearing, or worse yet receives an adverse result in the mail, that the hardest lessons of diminishing returns are revealed.
Licensing agencies and courts are generally quite deferential to the hearing decision of an administrative law judge. Once an administrative law judge has decided the case, and the agency has adopted that decision,the remaining legal options generally are ask for reconsideration, petition the Superior Court for a writ, or wait reinstatement after rehabilitation. However, in administrative law, as in all law and litigation, second chances can be hard to come by. As a general principle, the integrity of our state license discipline apparatus depends upon agencies typically making decisions that conclude cases and withstand challenges. This begs the question of what, if anything, can be done in the latter stages of administrative litigation.
As a general rule, post-decision case reversals depend upon either new, “game changing” evidence, or an identified legal mistake made by the agency or judge. Most potential appeals that come into the office would be argued as “abuse of discretion,” which can be described as patent unfairness in the imposition of and degree of discipline. Unfortunately, true abuse of discretion occurs very rarely. Courts are loathe to second-guess agencies and administrative judges.
The lesson for licensees and license applicants is that pro-active, positive action at the earliest possible stage of the licensing matter can make a big difference in the outcome of an administrative hearing. It is crucial that the licensee or license applicant communicates information and demonstrates a demeanor that is honest, remorseful for past mistakes, and humbly and energetically seeks to right the wrongs of the past. To be certain, some serious license discipline or application denial cases must be litigated to conclusion or through appeal. Negative assumptions can cause an attorney to miss issues for reversal, and thus should be avoided. However, clients must recognize early on the depth of their dilemma, and after receiving an adverse decision, must then think carefully about the risk benefit analysis involved in pursuing a license appeal.