When people think of a job requiring a license, a doctor or plumber or a lawyer probably comes to mind. But many other careers require licenses, permits, or certifications.
The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services alone regulates scores of professions and trades, from accountants to weld test conductors (no, really—the DSPS maintains an A to Z list of professions under its purview. Lawyers, insurance professionals, certified nursing assistants, investment advisors and more are regulated by other agencies.
These agencies all have a process by which clients, patients, employers, competitors or complete strangers can file a complaint against a regulated professional, which if investigated and proven could lead to professional discipline. The bad news? Anyone can file a complaint about anyone else at any time. Although the processes differ a bit between agencies, generally the person filing a complaint doesn’t need to do much more than make a phone call or fill out a web form. There is no fee, and sometimes complaints can be made anonymously.
Licensing complaints are relatively common, and the agency is required to investigate all of them. Each agency has a different procedure, but in most cases, an investigation means that shortly after the agency receives the complaint, the person who is the subject of the investigation will get that dreaded letter, phone call, or, increasingly, e-mail informing them of the complaint and asking for a response.
It’s hard not to panic when that notice comes in, even if (or possibly especially if) you didn’t do anything wrong. After all, your license is your livelihood, and anything that puts your livelihood at risk is scary. That said, try not to react emotionally, especially if your first contact comes via a phone call from an investigator. You are required to respond and otherwise cooperate fully with the investigation, but that doesn’t mean you need to answer right away. It’s human nature to want to start explaining everything immediately to defend yourself, but it’s often not all that helpful. Instead, it’s fine to ask for a written copy of the complaint if it exists, and for time to respond to it. Usually, the agency will forward you a complaint (or a written summary of a complaint that was made orally), and may include some specific questions or requests for documents.
So, take a deep breath and think about how you might want to respond.
You are not required to have an attorney help you with your response, but if you are not sure how to proceed, if you just don’t have time to answer yourself, or if you’re still panicking, it may be a good idea to consult with a qualified licensing attorney. Doing so puts some distance between you and the complaint, so it can be answered thoroughly and objectively, without overburdening the investigator with information that isn’t needed (and that may not even help). The agency will not interpret your decision to hire a lawyer as an admission that you did something wrong—they see it as a sign you are taking things seriously.
During an investigation, the investigator may request documents, ask you to answer questions, or talk to witnesses. He or she may ask the person who filed the complaint for their response, and then you may have an opportunity to reply. There may be several rounds of back-and-forth. This can take a long time, and you may not hear from the investigator for several months or even longer. It can be a bit frustrating.
Once the investigation is complete, the agency has several options. One is dismissal, and in most agencies, that’s the most common outcome—the agency finds insufficient evidence of a rule violation, or sometimes the agency finds a rule was violated but the infraction was too minor to warrant anything other than a cautionary letter. Other, non-disciplinary options such as warnings, diversions, or remedial education orders may be offered, depending on the profession and the circumstances.
However, in some cases, the agency does find enough evidence that a violation of the rules has occurred, and may refer the matter for stipulated discipline or for a hearing. We’ll discuss discipline in later installments.
Stacie H. Rosenzweig is an attorney with Halling & Cayo S.C. She focuses her practice on litigation, licensing and professional responsibility defense, and employment law. She has additional experience in administrative proceedings and navigating the state and municipal licensing systems.