In a rare case of a professional licensee challenging a determination by a professional licensing board, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the determination by the Minnesota Board of Nursing (“Nursing Board”) to revoke a Minnesota nurse’s registered nurse (RN) license as well as her advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) license. In the Matter of Sharon Beth Johnson, APRN-CNP, RN, No. A17-1571, 2018 WL 3421269 (Minn. Ct. App. July 16, 2018).
Johnson opened a pain-management clinic in 2016 to treat patients with chronic pain. By April of 2017, the Nursing Board had received ten complaints from pharmacies and other healthcare professionals about her prescribing practices. The Board investigated, suspended Johnson’s licenses, and initiated a contested-case proceeding based on seven grounds of discipline, primarily centered on improper prescribing practices.
An administrative law judge (ALJ) held an evidentiary hearing finding that Johnson had improperly prescribed very high doses of opioids to 123 patients, improperly prescribed opioids with benzodiazepines, and improperly prescribed codeine cough syrup to treat asthma, among other examples of improper conduct. The Nursing Board adopted the ALJ’s factual findings and then revoked Johnson’s APRN and RN licenses and ordered that she not be allowed to apply for re-licensure for fifteen years.
Johnson appealed the determination to the Minnesota Court of Appeals arguing first that her prescribing practices related only to her APRN license, which allowed her to prescribe medications, and not her RN license which did not give her prescribing authority. She also argued that the 15-year revocation of her license was disproportionate to her violations.
The Court affirmed the Nursing Board’s decision. The Appellate Court started with the standard of review. It noted that, “decisions of administrative agencies enjoy a presumption of correctness, and deference should be shown by courts to the agencies’ expertise and their special knowledge in the fields of their technical training, education, and experience.” Citing Minn. Stat. § 14.69, the Court went on to explain that “an appellate court reviewing an agency decision may reverse or modify “the decision if the substantial rights of the petitioners may have been prejudiced” because the administrative decision was (1) based on unlawful procedure, (2) affected by an error of law, (3) not supported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record, or (4) arbitrary or capricious.” Finally, it determined that the relator has the burden of proof when challenging an agency decision.
The Court found that the Nursing Board’s decision to revoke Johnson’s RN license was not arbitrary or capricious because she failed to perform the functions of an RN as set forth in the Minnesota Nurse Practice Act. It also found that the Board did not clearly abuse its discretion in revoking her licenses for a period of 15 years.
The decision in Johnson was not surprising, especially in light of strong societal concerns about the opioid crisis and what appears to be her operation of a for-profit clinic to exploit her prescribing authority with a vulnerable patient population. It serves as a helpful reminder, however, of the legal standard on appeal and the high burden licensees face when challenging a board determination.
If you have questions about professional licensing contact one of the Minnesota employment law attorneys of Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A.
About the Author:
Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is a Minnesota business and employment law firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their employment law attorneys can be reached at 612.455.0500.