Drink and Drive; Lose Your Nursing License

State Court of Appeal

The Board of Registered Nursing may revoke a nurse’s professional license over a drunk driving conviction, without any connection between the alcohol-related incident and the nurse’s professional fitness, a state appeals court said.

This is the first case to allow revocation of a nursing license based on conduct unrelated to professional performance.  Justice Henry E. Needham, of the First District Court of Appeal, relied on three prior court of appeal decisions that allowed discipline of doctors for similar misconduct.

Anuncio L. Sulla, Jr. lost his nursing license following a nighttime collision with a freeway center divider, along Highway 101 in the Bay Area.  A breathalyzer measured his blood alcohol level at 0.16 percent.  The legal limit is 0.08.  Sulla pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge and was placed on three years probation.

Despite Sulla’s record as a highly respected nurse with no prior disciplinary actions, the Board filed a discipline action.  An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ordered his license revoked, finding that he had engaged in “unprofessional conduct.”

The ALJ noted that neither Sulla’s conduct nor his conviction was “substantially related to the qualifications, functions, or duties” of a registered nurse, yet ruled that no such connection was required for professional discipline to apply.  The ALJ suspended proceedings until Sulla served his probation.

The Board adopted the ALJ’s decision, and Sulla filed a petition for writ of administrative mandate in the superior court.

The Court of Appeal decision overturned San Francisco Superior Court Judge Loretta M. Giorgi, who had ruled that Sulla’s behavior had to be related to his professional responsibilities.

In upholding Sulla’s discipline, Needham relied on three court of appeals cases.  The first held that the Legislature could create a discipline system that punished a licensed doctor based on personal narcotics use, without showing the incident affected the doctor’s professional ability.

In the second case, a court of appeal upheld discipline against a doctor with three drunk driving misdemeanor convictions, explaining: “Driving under the influence ‘reflects a lack of sound professional and personal judgment,’ threatens the safety of the public, and demonstrates both a disregard of the medical knowledge of the effects of alcohol and the legal prohibitions against drinking and driving.”

Lastly, a court upheld discipline of a doctor who had several driving-under-the-influence arrests but no convictions.

Sulla’s equal protection claim was also rejected. Needham said it is a legislative decision to treat members of one profession differently from members of another.

Justice Needham was joined by Justices Barbara Jones and Terence L. Bruiniers.

Case: Sulla, Jr. v. Board of Registered Nursing, No. A132699


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