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Is a DWI Always Grounds for Nurse Disciplinary Action?

Nurse in lab coat with gavel

A nurse filed an application to renew his license and reported that he pled guilty to a DWI a few months before. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail, with a suspended sentence pending completion of two years of unsupervised probation.

The RN had two additional DWIs before this one (also misdemeanors), each with a suspended sentence pending completion of unsupervised probation.

The board filed a complaint against the RN and requested a hearing, alleging that the RN’s DWI offenses involved “moral turpitude.”

Moral turpitude was defined as “an act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellow men, or society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man.”

During the hearing, the RN stated that he had started attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings following previous DWIs, but stopped attending them and experienced occasional relapses after going through several traumatic events in his life, including his mother’s death. 

He also mentioned that he was under immense stress during the pandemic due to long, demanding work hours. He was taking anti-depressant medication, but AA meetings were not being held due to the pandemic.

His latest DWI took place after a teenage patient he was caring for died.

The board held that the RN’s multiple DWI misdemeanor convictions within two decades qualified as offenses involving moral turpitude because they were contrary to ethical standards and the responsibilities owed to other members of society and they cast the nursing profession in a negative manner.

The RN’s license was placed on probation for five years. Conditions of the probation included required treatment programs and continuing education, drug screens, and limited work hours, among others.

RN files for a judicial review 

The RN filed a judicial review of the board’s decision. The court vacated the board’s ruling and remanded the case back to the board, saying the RN’s case, in its “present form,” should be dismissed. 

This decision was influenced by another state case that prohibited the board from disciplining a licensed nurse for a charge of DWI without first obtaining a factual determination from the Administrative Hearing Commission (AHC), because a DWI was not a crime of moral turpitude.

However the appellate court reviewed various prior cases and found distinctions between the RN’s case and those earlier rulings. It held that if a licensed nurse has a long-standing substance use disorder, it could be grounds upon which to discipline the nurse because it could involve moral turpitude. 

According to the court, intermittent situations in which substance use occurs are not indicative of moral turpitude. It pointed out that, in this case, the RN sought help after the earlier DWIs, attended AA meetings when they were available, and also took antidepressant medication.

The court ordered the board to dismiss the current disciplinary action against the RN’s license and made it clear that its ruling didn’t prohibit the board from pursuing further action against the RN through the AHC.

What does this case mean for you?

State legislatures grant boards of nursing specific authority to regulate nursing practice through the state nurse practice act and other relevant statutes. Nevertheless, this authority has limits and can’t be surpassed. 

In this RN’s case, the board bypassed procedures that required it to obtain a determination by the AHC before proceeding to file a complaint against the RN. Therefore, it exceeded its authority to discipline the RN.

Clearly, such a limitation on a board of nursing’s authority is a protection for you. If a board were able to bring a professional disciplinary action against you without adhering to the statutory limits of its powers, you and your colleagues would be in constant fear of facing an unfounded and unfair claim.

Understanding the content of your state’s nurse practice act and its regulations concerning the process and timing of filing a complaint against you is crucial for this reason. Likewise, seeking legal advice from an attorney who can also represent you in any claim lodged against you is essential. If the accusations are baseless and unjust, the attorney can contest them.

But keep in mind that the appellate court didn’t say the board couldn’t discipline the RN. Rather, it held that an accurate basis for discipline must be based on the state’s nurse practice act and the powers granted to the board by the state legislature.

It’s also important to note that the accusations against the RN didn’t pertain to patient care in any way. If the RN had been under the influence of alcohol while delivering patient care, such an allegation might have supported a charge of moral turpitude.