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Automatic suspension for drug felonies subject to same reinstatement process as standard suspensions

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in a November 22 ruling, overturned a decision by the state’s nursing board to impose a mandatory 10-year waiting period on a licensee suspended for a criminal drug conviction, holding that the waiting period applied only to revoked licenses.

(McGrath v. Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs)

The crux of the case was a seeming oversight in Pennsylvania’s nursing statute regarding the reinstatement of licensees sanctioned for felony drug crimes.

The state’s Nursing Law mandates an automatic suspension for licensees convicted of a controlled substance penalty. The law further prevents the board from reinstating any licenses which the board has revoked as the result of a controlled substance conviction, but the licensee may reapply for a new license after a period of 5 years from the revocation and 10 years from the criminal conviction.

Despite this specificity regarding revocations, the law fails to explicitly state the manner in which licenses suspended—as opposed to revoked—for felony drug offenses can be reinstated.

Nurse Shannon McGrath pled guilty to a drug felony in 2013. In response, the state’s nursing board, citing the felony drug-conviction provisions, issued an automatic suspension of her license for 10 years. In doing so, the board appeared to treat an automatic suspension under the statute the same as revocation, which requires the 5- and 10-year waiting periods.

On appeal, the state’s Commonwealth Court reversed the board’s decision to impose the 10-year suspension. In its opinion, the Commonwealth Court valiantly interpreted what appeared to be an especially difficult statutory scheme, given the legislation’s failure to explicitly deal with the suspensions that it mandated.

In the end, concluding that the statute was punitive and thus to be construed against the state in favor of the licensee, the Commonwealth Court held that the section of the law mandating a 10-year waiting period for license revocations was not sufficiently explicit to be applied to suspended licenses, and reversed that part of the board’s decision. The board appealed, and the case rose up to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Engaging with the legal interpretation afresh, and examining the history and current construction of the Nursing Law, the justices of the Supreme Court held that an “automatic suspension” under the section of the Nursing Law dealing with felony drug convictions constituted a different sanction than a “suspension” issued under other sections of the law.

However, much turned on several minutiae of language in the relevant provision of the law and, in the end, the Court held that, in creating these two distinct categories of suspensions, the legislature had also specifically decreed that the restoration of a license subject to an automatic suspension should be accomplished in the same manner as a standard suspension, under which rubric the board has discretion in determining its length. Thus, the statutorily-mandated 10-year waiting period for revocations did not apply to automatic suspensions.

Having settled the matter of statutory construction, the Court upheld the decision of the lower body to reverse the board’s decision.