One of the purposes of the New Jersey State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (“the Board”) is to investigate consumer complaints filed against veterinarians. On May 15, 2013, at the New Jersey Bar Association’s Annual Meeting, a panel discussed this very topic. Panelists included: (1) Olga Bradford, Deputy Attorney General, NJ Division of Consumer Affairs, who currently counsels the Board; (2) Deborah Cmielewski, formerly Chief of Regulatory Affairs for the Division of Consumer Affairs, now in private practice, and who has represented veterinarians before the Board; and (3) this author, the former New Jersey State Veterinarian, a former Board member, and now an attorney. This article provides a summary of the information about complaints before the Board, discussed by these panelists (another panelist presented information on veterinary malpractice issues).
Upon receipt of a consumer complaint, regardless of whether it is signed or anonymous, the Board must reasonably investigate the complaint. The process for handling complaints is as follows:
- The Board notifies a veterinarian in writing of a consumer complaint and requests that the veterinarian provide a written response.
- The veterinarian provides a written response to the Board, including medical records, which are almost always required, within the time period allowed.
- The Board, upon review of the complaint and the licensee’s response, at its discretion, may require that the veterinarian attend an Investigative Inquiry (“the II”). An II is similar to a deposition, where Board members and the Deputy Attorney General are permitted to ask any questions, within reason.
- After the Board reviews a complaint it may (1) issue a letter finding no cause for action; (2) issue a Consent Order or other settlement document, after finding the veterinarian violated the laws or regulations governing the practice of veterinary medicine; (3) issue a Provision Order of Discipline and a Uniform Penalty Letter; or (4) recommend the filing of an administrative Complaint by the Division of Consumer Affair’s Division of Law.
While it is understandable that a veterinarian would be concerned and upset upon receipt of a complaint, the importance of a measured, professional, honest, and complete response cannot be overstated. The panel identified several important pointers that all veterinarians should keep in mind:
- Veterinarians are required to cooperate fully with any and all inquiries from the Board. Do so promptly, with respect, and professionally.
- Responses to complaints should be simple and be in direct response to the complaint. The veterinarian should avoid unnecessary details.
- As relates to the complainant, responses should avoid speculation as to motives, accusations, and inflammatory remarks.
- When medical records are necessary, any attempts to change, embellish or alter the records should be strictly forbidden. The time to ensure that the records comply with Board requirements is before any complaint is filed.
- Review all practice procedures and protocols on a regular basis, and particularly after you receive a complaint. Even if a complaint is unfounded, a review of practice protocols is warranted, to identify how future complaints can be avoided.
- Your veterinary license is a privilege – not a right.
Although it is not required, many veterinarians prefer to retain an attorney to assist them. An attorney can provide an unbiased opinion of a complaint. She may assist the veterinarian with correspondence to the Board, including providing a response to a complaint. To some, an Investigative Inquiry is a harrowing experience. A veterinarian may retain an attorney to prepare her/him for the II by reviewing the questions which will likely be asked and to attend the II with the veterinarian.
Remember, a veterinary license is a precious commodity. It is your livelihood. Consumer complaints submitted to the Board should be taken seriously and responded to promptly. Please contact me should you have any questions or require representation.