Professional Nurses and Protection from Abuse Orders

In Pennsylvania, Protection from Abuse Orders are not just about the victim; they can have a drastic impact on the accused, as well. If you're a licensed nurse and you're served with a PFA, it can cause serious disruptions to your personal and professional life. You might be banned from having contact with your spouse, domestic partner, or children. You may need to alter your routine and the places you go in order to avoid the protected party. Any violation of the PFA can lead to criminal contempt charges in addition to any domestic violence charges you might face in relation to the PFA.

But the fact is, even if you get the PFA dismissed, being served with one could come back to bite you professionally, even years later. Licensed nurses have a mandate to uphold the highest standards of conduct and to maintain the public trust. Having a PFA on your record could create trouble with the Pennsylvania State Board of Nursing because any suggestion that you have acted unsafely toward another person could jeopardize that public trust. That doubt could be enough to cause the board to suspend or revoke your license to practice as a nurse.

You can avoid serious consequences for your professional license by being as proactive as possible about fighting a PFA if you are served with one. The Lento Law Firm has provided the following information to help you be informed about the potential impact of a PFA on your nurse's license and the steps that you should take to protect it.

Protection From Abuse Orders in Pennsylvania

A Protection from Abuse Order (PFA) is a civil court order that bans the defendant (or respondent) from having contact with the plaintiff (or petitioner). This order is often requested by alleged victims in domestic violence cases or in cases alleging abuse, harassment, stalking, and other types of threatening behavior. The allegations of threatening, abuse, or violence do not have to be true in order for you to be served with a PFA. The petitioner just needs to convince the judge that there is a viable threat.

If you receive a PFA in Pennsylvania, you can't have contact with the person who filed it against you while the PFA remains in effect. Depending on the decision of the judge, it could also mean that you lose other rights or privileges (e.g., custody rights or visitation rights).

Who Can Legally File a PFA Petition in Pennsylvania

Anyone over 18 years old may file a PFA against any household member or anyone with whom they have (or had) an intimate relationship. This definition covers a wide range of relationships, including:

  • Spouses (including same-sex spouses)
  • Domestic partners
  • Any person who is related by blood (e.g., parents, siblings, or children over 18)
  • Any person related to you through marriage (i.e., in-laws)
  • Any person with whom you share biological parental responsibility for a child
  • Both current and past intimate or dating relationships

The PFA Process in Pennsylvania

In most cases, when a petitioner files for Protection from Abuse, the judge will issue a temporary PFA "ex parte," meaning “without your presence.” This means that you as the defendant are not informed of the hearing or given the right to defend your case—the judge will decide unilaterally whether the case meets the criteria for issuing a temporary PFA.

A temporary PFA goes into effect immediately pending a hearing, which is typically scheduled within ten days. At this hearing, you will be permitted to appear with an attorney to present your side of the story along with any evidence and witnesses to support your case and refute the reasons for the PFA. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will decide whether to dismiss the PFA or to uphold it. If upheld, the temporary PFA becomes a final PFA, which remains in force for three years.

What Happens if a PFA Order Is Violated

A PFA order can be served even if no criminal charges have been filed (although they frequently accompany domestic violence charges). That said, violating the PFA is a criminal offense, and if you violate the terms of the PFA in any way, even accidentally, you could be arrested and face criminal contempt charges. You may even be jailed for up to six months. If the petitioner calls law enforcement claiming you have violated your PFA, they may arrest you on the testimony of the petitioner even if you aren't there when they show up. Make sure you read and understand the PFA fully to make sure you abide by the terms to the letter.

How Can a Protection From Abuse Order Affect Your Nurse's License?

The existence of a PFA can ultimately have an impact on your ability to practice nursing in Pennsylvania, whether you are applying for a license or whether the Board of Nursing decides to take action on an existing license. In Pennsylvania, licensed nurses are expected to uphold certain standards of professionalism and ethics both on and off the job. Allegations of misconduct, unprofessional behavior, and crimes of moral turpitude could trigger an investigation by the State Board of Nursing, possibly resulting in license suspension, revocation, or another form of discipline. A PFA is not a criminal conviction by definition, but it could be viewed as a compromise to the public trust because a PFA means someone believes you are unsafe, and the court believed it enough to issue an order.

Here are some examples of how a PFA could put your nurse's license at risk:

  • The Board of Nursing sees the PFA on your public record and calls for an investigation
  • A colleague, patient, or other person who is aware of your PFA files a complaint with the Board of Nursing
  • You are convicted of contempt due to violating your PFA, and it is reported to the Board of Nursing
  • The Board of Nursing requires you to disclose the PFA and any accompanying arrests, and you fail to do so

How Might the Board of Nursing Respond to News of My PFA?

The Pennsylvania Board of Nursing will review the context of the PFA, and if they believe it signifies a violation of the public trust, they may initiate disciplinary action against your license. The disciplinary process follows a set of steps:

  • Investigation. The board will consider the matter and determine if further action is necessary. The board may ask you for a written explanation regarding the PFA, giving you your first opportunity to give your side of the story. They may also request documents or interview witnesses.
  • Consent decree. If the board feels disciplinary action is called for regarding the PFA, they may offer to let you forego a formal hearing by agreeing to a consent decree. This is a formal agreement between you and the state in which you acknowledge wrongdoing and voluntarily submit to the Board of Nursing's recommended actions.
  • Formal hearing. If the matter moves into the hearing phase, you'll appear before the Board of Nursing or before an Administrative Law Judge to answer the complaint against you. During these proceedings, you may be represented by an attorney.
  • Board action. The Board of Nursing will make a final call whether to impose sanctions against you or penalize you, up to and including suspending or revoking your nurse's license.

Will I Lose My Nurse's License Automatically Over a PFA?

No. The Board of Nursing will go through the entire disciplinary process before making a decision, and depending on the circumstances, they may impose lesser penalties such as restrictions on activities, fines, mandatory continuing education, formal reprimands, etc.—any of which would allow you to keep your license. If the PFA was triggered in part by extenuating circumstances like substance abuse, the board might allow you to complete an approved treatment program in lieu of disciplinary action (something called “alternative-to-discipline”). If, however, the Board of Nursing feels you are less than honest or forthcoming at any point in the investigation, they will be more likely to suspend or revoke your nurse's license.

Could a PFA Affect My Nursing Career Even if My License Is Not Revoked?

Yes, it could. First, if the board decides to take any formal action against your license, it will likely show up on your public professional record even if you are allowed to continue to practice. Second, the PFA itself will appear on your public record and could show up in background checks. Either of these records could impact your credibility with clients, patients, colleagues, and potential employers.

Will My PFA Turn Up on a Criminal Background Check?

No, it won't. The PFA is a civil order and does not appear on your criminal record unless you are convicted for violating the PFA. In that case, a criminal contempt conviction may appear on your criminal history check. However, the PFA remains part of public court records and maybe still turn up in a public records search. This can work against you if the State Board of Nursing pulls these records.

I Was Issued a Temporary PFA, but It Was Not Finalized. Is It Still on My Public Record?

Yes. Regrettably, at this time, a Protection from Abuse Order remains visible indefinitely in public court records even after they are withdrawn or dismissed—and even if the PFA itself was proven to be unfounded. It could still come back to haunt your nurse's license at some point.

Will a Final PFA Stay Visible on My Record Even After It Expires?

Yes. Unless you file a successful petition to have it expunged, the PFA remains on your record indefinitely.

Could the Board of Nursing Still Take Action Against My License if My PFA Was Dismissed or Vacated?

Yes—if the board interprets the record of your PFA as a “red flag.” The Board of Nursing has the responsibility of protecting the public by granting licenses only to those they believe are qualified and worthy, and the existence of any PFA may cast doubt on your trustworthiness. That said, it's generally easier to provide a convincing explanation to the Board of Nursing if you were ultimately exonerated, and a good attorney may be able to help clear up any confusion. But if a PFA shows up on your record at all, you should be prepared for a possible inquiry.

Is There Any Way for Me To Keep a PFA Order From Negatively Affecting My Nurse's License?

Yes, there are several steps you can take to protect your nursing career in the event that someone files a PFA against you. An experienced attorney can advise you on the best specific course of action to take, but here's a quick overview of your options.

Contesting the Protection From Abuse Order

While there is no effective way to stop a temporary PFA from going into effect, you will have an opportunity to contest the PFA within ten days at the official PFA hearing. At this time, you can appear with a lawyer to present your side of the story and argue why the PFA should not be finalized. You will be able to challenge the PFA, present your evidence, call witnesses, and cross-examine the petitioner's witnesses at this hearing. If you and your attorney can convince the judge that the PFA is not necessary or was incorrectly imposed, the judge will dismiss it without making it final. This action will not stop the PFA from being on your public record. However, a temporary PFA which was not finalized is still easier to explain to the Board of Nursing if they have concerns about it. An experienced PFA defense lawyer will help you to build the strongest argument in order to have the PFA dismissed.

NOTE: Be sure to note the time and place of the hearing when you are served with the temporary PFA, so you don't miss your opportunity to defend yourself. If you fail to appear, the judge will rule summarily against you and finalize the PFA.

Appealing the PFA Order

If the PFA against you is finalized, you still have two opportunities to appeal the decision. You can:

File a Motion for Reconsideration within ten days of the finalized PFA. You'll file this motion with the same court where your case was determined. Your attorney will present arguments as to how/why the judge wrongfully issued the PFA.

Submit a formal appeal with the Superior Court within 30 days of the finalized PFA. In the appeal, your attorney must argue that the judge made either a mistake in law or a mistake in fact. The PFA could be overturned if the Superior Court judge agrees.

Bear in mind that most appeals against finalized PFAs are not successful, so your attorney will need to make a very compelling argument. However, because the PFA can have a significant impact on your nurse's license, it may still be in your best interest to exhaust all options. Again, while overturning a PFA won't remove it from your record, it still gives you a better foothold with the Board of Nursing if they should question the PFA.

Having the PFA Vacated

If the appeal process doesn't work or doesn't seem feasible, you may still be able to have a PFA vacated (canceled) before it expires. Because a PFA can only be vacated at the request of the petitioner, it can be a challenge to broach the idea because, by definition, you may be barred from contact with the petitioner. However, the petitioner may choose to vacate the PFA if they no longer consider you a threat or if they have a change of heart about filing the PFA. Your attorney may offer suggestions on ways to seek to have a PFA vacated without violating the terms of your agreement.

Getting Your PFA Record Expunged

It's worth mentioning again that a PFA automatically becomes a matter of public record, even if you have done nothing wrong and the PFA is uncalled for. This can cause problems with your professional licensure if the licensing board raises questions about it. As a way of avoiding this outcome, your attorney can petition the court to expunge your PFA record.

Currently, Pennsylvania's expungement process for PFA records is more complicated than for criminal offenses. According to a court decision in Commonwealth and Charnik, a temporary PFA can only be expunged in two situations: a) if the PFA was dismissed without being finalized, and b) if the petitioner withdraws the PFA petition before it becomes final (for instance, they changed their mind or you were able to reconcile). If your PFA becomes final, then it cannot be expunged from your record.

There is no such thing as an automatic expungement for any PFA, and there is no guarantee of success if you petition the court for an expungement. But if your attorney is successful in petitioning the court, any mention of the PFA will be stricken from your public record and lessens the chance that it will raise alarms with the State Board of Nursing.

Managing the PFA Issue Directly With Your Licensing Board

Because it is so difficult to get a PFA removed from your record, the most common way to protect your career is to respond directly to the State Board of Nursing if they raise concerns about the PFA. For this process, the help of a professional license defense attorney can be quite helpful. A good lawyer can guide you through the investigation and disciplinary process, negotiate with the board directly on your behalf, and present evidence and arguments as to why the PFA will not affect you carrying out your duties as a nurse. If the PFA was issued unfairly or was dismissed, the attorney can also present those facts as evidence. In many cases, the help of an attorney can avert disciplinary actions from the Board of Nursing.

While a Protection from Abuse Order can definitely cause problems for your nurse's license in Pennsylvania, it is anything but a death sentence for your career. By taking proactive steps early with the help of a good Pennsylvania defense attorney, you can often avoid penalties from the Board of Nursing and keep your license intact. By contrast, if you are served with a PFA, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Taking a passive approach could ultimately result in having the Board of Nursing suspend or revoke your license.

Joseph D. Lento is an experienced attorney who not only can help you fight your PFA but also has extensive experience representing licensed nurses in front of the State Board of Nursing. Don't let a Protection from Abuse Order derail your nursing career. Call the Lento Law firm at 888-535-3686 or email us to see how we can help.

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