An accusation is the document that commences formal license discipline against a California licensee. If you know something about law, you might have heard of a civil or criminal complaint; it is similar. Simply put, it is a letter from the executive officer or an administrative chief of a licensing agency to the governing body (such as a board) or individual (such as a commissioner) asking them to impose discipline. Now you might ask yourself, why would an executive officer have to write a document to the agency head(s) he or she works for, of even sometimes, write a letter to himself or herself (if the executive officer and the agency head are the same person)?
The answer is that the primary function of the accusation is to give notice to a licensee of what discipline a license agency is seeking and why.
Government Code section 11503 tells us what an accusation is: "[t]he accusation shall be a written statement of charges which shall set forth in ordinary and concise language the acts or omissions with which the respondent is charged, to the end that the respondent will be able to prepare his defense." Unfortunately, the accusation is never in ordinary language, and often is not concise. The rest of this definition states the most important function of the accusation. It frames the disciplinary case. This can become important if, for example, at a very late stage of the proceeding, the agency finds it cannot make its case. At that time it may be too late to step outside the accusation and allege different wrongdoing, because that would violate due process.
The accusation tells a licensee, and importantly his or her attorney, why the agency has jurisdiction, or power over, the conduct alleged in the accusation. The accusation spells out a theory of the case. It is like a flight plan the agency’s lawyer must follow.
Importantly, the accusation does one other thing, it gives the public notice of the allegations within. The accusation is a public record. As the accusation only tells one side of the story – written by the agency seeking discipline – it can be quite damning, and even sensational. A scandalous accusation can do more damage than the discipline it seeks by ruining a reputation well before the disciplinary case is over.
Not every agency puts out its accusations for public consumption, and some who do are careful to explain that the accusation contains just unproven allegations. However, most agencies will just put the accusation out there, sort of a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ approach.
A lawyer for a licensee must carefully study the accusation to challenge the laws invoked, the discipline sought, and to hold the agency to its "flight plan" so that it follows the rules of fairness and due process. The public must understand that the accusation is an advocacy tool seeking to put an individual or organization in a bad light to begin to persuade a fact finder to impose license discipline. It is not fact and should not be treated as such.