Ethics and Professional Responsibility

What is Ethics Law?

Ethics law provides for the discipline of attorneys, physicians, elected officials, and other professionals as a result of inappropriate conduct. These proceedings usually begin when a member of the public files a complaint with a professional responsibility review board. The complaint is investigated, and a formal hearing may be held. The accused individual will often hire an attorney to aid in the preparation of a defense, and to act as an advocate at the hearing. Those who are found guilty of serious ethics violations face severe penalties, including suspension or even revocation of their professional license.

Each profession subject to ethics oversight has a unique set of rules describing the specific types of conduct that will result in discipline. For example, lawyers cannot encourage a client to commit perjury, doctors cannot write a prescription in the absence of a bona fide medical need, and politicians cannot use public funds to pay for personal expenses. These rules are published by the enforcement authority in each jurisdiction. Practitioners are expected to keep abreast of the requirements and conduct themselves accordingly.

There are also a number of activities that will be considered misconduct for all types of professionals. Examples include abusing drugs or alcohol, being convicted of a criminal offense, and engaging in sexual relations with clients or subordinate public employees. Most professionals are prohibited from accepting money or benefits when it will give the appearance of impropriety, regardless of the true nature of the exchange. Finally, professionals have an ethical duty to act with competence. Complaints often come about because, for whatever reason, the practitioner provided substandard services to a client or patient.

Responding to Allegations

Not everyone who hires a professional or votes a candidate into office will be pleased with the results. When things go wrong, people tend to blame the person they trusted to handle the matter, especially when the unfavorable outcome is followed shortly thereafter by a bill requesting payment for the services. Fortunately, the majority of ethics complaints are screened by an oversight board during the initial stage of review. This also means that when professionals receive notice of a complaint, they should pay close attention. There must have been sufficient grounds, at least on the face of the complaint, for the board to move forward with the case.

The biggest mistake that can be made after receiving notice of an ethics complaint is to fail to reply to the board. Review boards typically give notice by sending a letter directly to the professional, explaining the nature of the complaint, and asking for a response. Oftentimes, the professional will be struggling with problems such as substance abuse or financial insolvency (ethics complaints usually occur during such times), and will be too preoccupied to reply to the board. Even if the complaint is later dismissed, the failure to respond to the board in a timely fashion may itself lead to discipline.

Negotiated Resolutions

Once the professional has contacted the board and responded to the allegations, it may be possible to resolve the controversy by agreement. Much like criminal prosecutors, ethics review boards have limited resources with which to investigate and prove cases of misconduct. In exchange for accepting some degree of responsibility, the professional can often succeed in having the case closed. This allows the board to focus its efforts on other cases.

It is crucial to understand that these negotiations take place between the professional and the board, not between the professional and the complaining party. Direct contact with the individual who filed the complaint must be avoided. It may be construed as an effort to undermine the integrity of the proceeding - a form of "witness tampering," so to speak. There will be an appropriate time later in the proceeding for the professional and the client to reconcile, if they choose to do so.

Hearings in Front of the Board

If the case cannot be settled during the negotiation stage, then formal charges will be filed and a hearing will be scheduled to determine if an ethical violation did in fact occur. Ethics hearings are adversarial in nature, and the accused professional will benefit from the assistance of an attorney. Most professional liability insurance policies offer optional coverage to pay the cost of legal counsel in these situations. And in some cases, elected officials may be allowed to establish a defense fund to solicit private donations for this purpose. The hearing will be conducted like other types of administrative hearings. Professionals displeased with the result usually have the right to appeal.

Retaining an Ethics Defense Lawyer

If you have been notified that an ethics complaint has been filed against you, it may feel like your livelihood is in jeopardy. The good news is that, with help from an ethics defense lawyer, the matter can likely be resolved with no permanent consequences to your career. Contact an attorney to find out more.


Ethics Law Articles

  • A Guide to Lawyers' Ethical Rules

    Lawyers have their own set of regulations to follow. Learn more about rules may apply in a certain case and the entities responsible for implementing and regulations such rules. In addition, learn how to check an attorney's credentials and ensure validity.

  • Doctor Patient Privilege When the Patient Is a Litigant or a Criminal Defendant

    There are many aspects of a medical file that a doctor can disclose in certain situations without breaching the doctor/patient confidentiality privilege. However, these disclosures generally require extraordinary circumstances such as a court order or a lawyer requesting certain details that the individual gives permission for in the case.

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