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Okay to revoke therapist’s license for single DUI, court rules

Photo by James Palinsad

The state's physical therapy board was within its authority to discipline a physical therapist for a single conviction for intoxicated driving, a California appeals court held October 16. The court noted that the state's legislature has explicitly stated that a single criminal instance of dangerous consumption of alcohol is sufficiently related to a medical professional's practice as to warrant discipline.

Photo by James Palinsad

(Walker v. Physical Therapy Board of California)

In 2011, physical therapist Grace Walker got into a minor car accident while under the influence of alcohol and then drove away from the scene. Walker later pled guilty to a misdemeanor hit-and-run-a fact that led the board to bring disciplinary charges against her.

After a hearing, the board issued a stayed revocation of her license and placed her on probation on the grounds that she had been convicted of a crime related to her practice and engaged in dangerous consumption of alcohol.

Walker appealed and, although a court found that her conviction was not sufficiently related to her practice to warrant discipline, it also held that Walker had used alcohol in a dangerous manner and upheld the board’s disciplinary order.

On appeal, Walker argued that, under the physical therapy statutes, a finding that she had used alcohol in a dangerous manner was insufficient cause for the board to impose discipline without a finding that the consumption was also related to her practice.

The court disagreed. Justice Terry O’Rourke first noted that California’s Medical Practice Act explicitly states that the dangerous use of alcohol is related to the qualifications of practitioners, and both the physical therapy board and the state legislature have applied the Medical Practice Act to physical therapists.

“In doing so, the Legislature made an implied finding that the use of alcohol in a dangerous manner is sufficiently related to a physical therapist’s fitness to practice his or her profession to justify the suspension or revocation of his or her license,” wrote Justice Terry O’Rourke.

Although the lower court had held that no evidence existed showing that Walker’s consumption of alcohol had affected her practice, it had correctly “concluded that the Board was not required to make a separate nexus finding” that would have made that connection, Justice O’Rourke wrote.

Citing older cases, Justice O’Rourke wrote that existing California precedent “supports the conclusion that the use of alcohol in a dangerous manner-or conduct resulting in alcohol-related conviction-meets the constitutional nexus requirement because the Legislature has appropriately determined it is unprofessional conduct logically related to the fitness of an individual to treat patients.”

Although Walker argued that cases concerning nurses and physicians-such as those cited by the court-were not relevant to her case “because nurses are more directly responsible for the health and welfare of their patients,” Justice O’Rourke rejected that reasoning, again citing the clear language of the state legislature in applying the dangerous-alcohol-conduct provision to physical therapists. The justice also rejected an argument by Walker that physical therapists could only be disciplined for habitual alcohol use; that decision was based, again, on the explicit language of the statute.

The court affirmed the disciplinary decision and dismissed the case.