A Nurse Attorney’s Tips for Navigating Licensing Complaints

April 2, 2024   |   Nurses

Even for the most skilled and dedicated nurse, facing a licensing complaint isn’t unlikely. Knowing how to respond to and having professional liability insurance protects your license against wrongful accusations and mitigates the impact of legitimate ones.

One medication error or a difficult patient encounter may lead to a licensing complaint for any nurse who has worked in the field long enough. Nancy J. Brent, a nurse attorney in Chicago, sees four common reasons for nurse licensing complaints.

  1. Unprofessional conduct[NB3] [wm4] 
  2. Addiction to a controlled substance that leads a nurse to divert medication from the employer or leads to practicing impaired
  3. Medication errors
  4. Elder abuse

Know that licensing complaints are not uncommon and can arise from various circumstances, regardless of a nurse’s commitment to quality of care. The following are steps in the case of a nurse licensing report.

An investigation opens

A nurse licensing complaint triggers a mandatory investigation by the Board of Nursing. “The Board’s mandate is to protect the public from unsafe and incompetent practitioners, so anytime there’s an allegation that a nurse has done something injurious to the patient or the public in general, a  Board of Nursing is obligated to investigate,” says Brent.

In some cases, the investigation indicates the report is unfounded. That complaint is closed, and the nurse is never contacted.

Receiving a complaint

If you receive a licensing complaint notice, Brent recommends taking the following actions:

Carefully review the notice to identify the incident. The notice may mention the date and place of the incident, but it will not describe the incident in detail.

Don’t speak to anyone about the incident, including an investigator, co-workers or your employer. What you say during the investigatory phase to anyone can be used in the Board of Nursing Proceedings.

Because the complaint will be broad, the more detail you give to the investigators, the more potential for an investigation to move forward to the Board of Nursing. “The request by the investigators for the nurse to come in to talk is an attempt to get admission from the nurse. That’s why you never talk to the investigators without legal counsel,” says Brent.

Note the time frame for contacting the Board about the Notice.  Do not ignore or think the time frame is not important. Seek legal advice as soon as possible.

Notify your professional liability insurance provider

If you have professional liability insurance covering licensure issues, immediately inform them that you received a licensing complaint. They can then appoint a nurse attorney to assist you. If you don’t have this coverage, you must seek legal counsel independently.

Click here to learn about 9 Questions healthcare practitioners should ask about personal liability protection and employer liability protection to see if you need professional liability insurance.

Delaying informing your insurance provider can affect your coverage. “Part of the nurse’s obligation under a professional liability policy is to notify the insurer immediately when there might be a problem or there is a problem,” says Brent.

Seek legal representation

Before responding to or discussing the complaint with the Board of Nursing or its investigators, contact a nurse attorney or attorney whose practice is professional licensure defense.

An attorney can guide and represent your interests throughout the investigation and subsequent proceedings.


Preparing for the investigation

Your attorney won’t know anything about your case when you start working together. It’s up to you to provide information. “There has to be an honest relationship with the attorney. The nurse can’t hide things or falsify information,” says Brent.

Working closely with your attorney, prepare for the investigation by gathering all relevant information and documentation related to the complaint. This includes:

  • Collecting any personal records or documentation supporting your case, such as performance evaluations.
  • Identifying potential witnesses who can corroborate your account of the event.


The disciplinary process

Although the process in each state is different, if the investigation leads to disciplinary proceedings, here’s what can happen:

Disciplinary or settlement conference

This is a meeting with the Board of Nursing, during which your attorney will present information and arguments in your defense. The goal is to resolve the complaint without going to a formal hearing or to have the complaint dismissed.

Formal hearing

If the case proceeds to a formal hearing, evidence is presented, and witnesses may testify. The outcome can range from dismissal of the complaint to various forms of disciplinary action, such as license suspension.


The aftermath of a complaint

Regardless of the outcome, a licensing complaint can impact a nurse’s career. Disciplinary actions become part of the public record, affecting future employment opportunities. The potential long-term consequence of a complaint on your professional license is why having an attorney to help achieve the best possible outcome is essential.


The importance of professional licensing insurance

Not having professional liability insurance makes a licensing complaint exponentially more difficult and costly. Not only does this insurance help cover the costs of legal representation and protect your financial stability during the process, but your insurance provider will also help you navigate the process.

“If you’re on your own, it can be very costly. It takes time to deal with and resolve the allegations,” says Brent.

Like any insurance, the best case scenario is never needing to use your professional liability insurance. Having it keeps you protected if you ever do face a nursing complaint. “Nurses are human. Sometimes mistakes happen that may never have occurred before and are out of character, but they create a potential problem the Board must evaluate for the safety and well-being of the public,” says Brent.

Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN, is a nurse attorney in Wilmette, Ill., representing nurses in disciplinary proceedings before the state agency and board of nursing. She’s also the author of the textbook Nurses and the Law: A Guide to Principles and Applications.

This article is not intended as legal advice. Nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.  Readers are encouraged to seek legal counsel regarding issues and information contained in this article. 


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