Last week the Tennessean reported that the Tennessee Board of Nursing refused to discipline a nurse involved in the death of a patient. RaDonda Vaught made a medication error while she was employed at Vanderbilt Hospital which resulted in the death of a patient. Ms. Vaught faces criminal charges for reckless homicide but still has her Tennessee nursing license.
The Tennessee Department of Health investigated the allegation of violating the rules and regulations of the Tennessee Board of Nursing. A letter was issued to Ms. Vaught which set forth "[a]fter a review by the board's consultant and a staff attorney for the Tennessee Department of Health, a decision was made that this matter did not merit further action." The letter further states, "[t]his is not a disciplinary action and no record of it will appear in your licensure file." Ironically, Ms. Vaught could face discipline again if she is convicted of a crime. Under Tennessee law, she could lose her license just for being convicted of a crime.
Let's examine the investigative process. First, a complaint is made by someone which triggers the investigation. Step one is an investigation by an investigator for the Tennessee Department of Health. If you're a Tennessee nurse, never give a statement without consulting with a lawyer. After the investigation is complete, a consultant and a lawyer for the Tennessee Department of Health meet to decide if the case should proceed to formal charges or if it should be dismissed administratively. Here, a decision not to bring charges was made.
If the decision is made to proceed with formal discipline, the Department's lawyer will send you what we call a 320(c) letter and a Consent Order with findings of fact and proposed discipline. This letter is made to sound very threatening and is done so in an effort to get the licensee to sign the Consent Order quickly and without legal counsel. Then, the Department does not have to spend any time or effort on a hearing on the merits. I like to say that the 320(c) letter is like making an offer to let you take the noose or else you get the firing squad. The Consent Order is essentially their worst offer, and you should never sign one without first consulting with a lawyer. Once signed, the Consent Order cannot be undone. A lawyer can assist you in negotiating an agreement or rejecting the offer altogether.
If you don't sign the Consent Order, the next step taken by the Department will be a Notice of Charges which would be mailed to you or your lawyer. The Notice of Charges will formally set forth the alleged violations and will also include a date for a contested case hearing before the Board of Nursing.
Over the years, I have represented nurses before the Board of Nursing. It can be a very confusing and intimidating process. One must have an understanding of the rules of the various health-related boards, understand the Tennessee Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, and have trial skills on top of it all. If you are facing a charge before the Tennessee Board of Nursing, please contact us to discuss your options.