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Carpenter v. State Board of Nursing

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

December 20, 2016


         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF ST. LOUIS The Honorable David Dowd, Judge.

          Patricia Breckenridge, chief justice.

         Karen Carpenter sought judicial review of the State Board of Nursing's (Board) disciplinary order, which imposed discipline on her nursing license, including a three-year probationary period with numerous conditions and restrictions. The circuit court found that the Board's disciplinary order was arbitrary, unreasonable, and excessive. The court reduced the probationary period to one year and eliminated almost all conditions and restrictions originally imposed by the Board. Ms. Carpenter then sought attorney's fees under section 536.087.1, [1] which allows a "prevailing party" in an agency proceeding or civil action therefrom to collect attorney's fees. The circuit court rejected Ms. Carpenter's request, finding that, because Ms. Carpenter was still subject to discipline, she was not a "prevailing party."

         Ms. Carpenter appeals, arguing that the circuit court erred in finding that she was not a "prevailing party" based on the broad definition of "prevails" found in section 536.085 and Missouri and federal court interpretations of the term. This Court agrees. While the circuit court found that Ms. Carpenter's actions warranted some discipline, it also found that, as requested by Ms. Carpenter in her petition, the amount of discipline imposed was excessive, unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious. Section 536.085(3) defines "prevails" broadly as "obtains a favorable order, decision, judgment, or dismissal in a civil action or agency proceeding[.]" The circuit court applied a much narrower definition and found that Ms. Carpenter did not prevail on the "significant issue" of whether her actions warranted discipline. Under the broad definition of "prevails" found in the statute, however, Ms. Carpenter "prevailed" when she successfully petitioned the circuit court to reduce the probationary period on her license from three years to one and to eliminate almost all of the conditions and restrictions imposed by the Board.

         Nevertheless, the circuit court did not err in overruling Ms. Carpenter's motion for attorney's fees. Even though the Board acted in a dual capacity as both an advocate and an adjudicator at the disciplinary hearing, the attorney for the Board never took a position as to what discipline the Board should impose on Ms. Carpenter's license. Rather, it was the Board, acting in its adjudicatory role, that decided to impose the probation conditions with which the circuit court later found fault. Accordingly, Ms. Carpenter is not entitled to attorney's fees under section 536.087.1, and the circuit court's judgment denying her fee application is affirmed.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Karen Carpenter worked as a nurse at Fulton State Hospital until April 25, 2008, when she failed a drug screening and tested positive for "pain killers" for which she did not have a prescription. The hospital reported the incident to the Board the same day. On May 5, 2011, the Board filed a complaint with the Administrative Hearing Commission (AHC), seeking a finding that cause existed to discipline Ms. Carpenter's license as a registered nurse. On September 13, 2012, the AHC issued its decision, finding that Ms. Carpenter violated the Nursing Practice Act, chapter 335 RSMo, by unlawfully possessing and testing positive for controlled substances.

         In light of the findings by the AHC, the Board convened a hearing to determine what discipline should be imposed on Ms. Carpenter's license. On December 17, 2012, the Board entered its disciplinary order that included a three-year probationary period. The disciplinary order included seven sections, with more than 30 restrictions and conditions, including:

• Ms. Carpenter shall provide a copy of this Board Order to any current employer and to any potential employer. Ms. Carpenter shall cause an evaluation from each and every employer to be completed for the Board at least quarterly.
• Ms. Carpenter may not serve on the administrative staff, as a member of the faculty or as a preceptor at any school of professional or practical nursing.
• Ms. Carpenter shall only work as a nurse where there is on-site supervision. Ms. Carpenter shall not work in a home health care, hospice, or durable medical equipment.
• Ms. Carpenter shall not administer, possess, dispense or otherwise have access to controlled substances for the first twelve months of probation.
• Ms. Carpenter shall, within six weeks from the effective date of this agreement, undergo a thorough evaluation for chemical dependency performed by a licensed chemical dependency professional.
• Ms. Carpenter shall contract with the Board-approved third party administrative (TPA) to schedule random witnessed screening for alcohol and other drugs of abuse. The frequency and method of such screenings shall be at the Board's discretion. The screenings may be conducted on urine, breath, blood or hair. The random screens shall be at the expense of Ms. Carpenter.
• Ms. Carpenter shall call the TPA each day of the week including weekends, holidays, and each day that Ms. Carpenter is on vacation, between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. C.S.T. Failure to call the TPA every day shall constitute a violation of the terms of discipline.
• During the disciplinary period, Ms. Carpenter shall abstain completely from the use or consumption of alcohol in any form. The presence of any alcohol whatsoever in any biological sample obtained from Ms. Carpenter, regardless of the source, shall constitute a violation.

         On January 15, 2013, Ms. Carpenter, through counsel, filed a petition for judicial review in the circuit court of the City of St. Louis. The petition alleged that (1) the AHC did not have authority to issue its decision because the Board's complaint was not timely filed and (2) the terms and conditions specified in the Board's disciplinary order were unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of the Board's discretion. Ms. Carpenter also requested a stay while the case was being litigated. The court granted a stay, noting Ms. Carpenter's otherwise clean disciplinary record and the failure by the Board to show the risk of harm to the public if a stay was granted.

         On September 26, 2014, the court issued its order reversing the Board's disciplinary order and remanding the case to the Board to reconsider discipline. The court found that "the discipline imposed against [Ms. Carpenter's] license is unreasonable under all the circumstances, and an abuse of discretion. More specifically, the Court finds the Board's Discipline Order to be arbitrary and capricious."

         On October 24, 2014, Ms. Carpenter filed a motion seeking attorney's fees under section 536.087.1, which allows "[a] party who prevails in an agency proceeding or civil action arising therefrom, brought by or against the state, " to be awarded reasonable fees and expenses incurred by that party in the civil action or agency proceeding. Although the court, in its September 26 order, remanded the case to the Board for a reconsideration of the terms of discipline, the Board requested that the court make that determination because the Board would not meet until March 2015.

         On February 20, 2015, the court issued its final judgment, incorporating its previous order and vastly reducing the number and scope of the terms and conditions of Ms. Carpenter's discipline from that imposed by the Board. The court, finding that the length and terms of the Board's disciplinary order were excessive, arbitrary, and capricious, reduced the length of probation from three years to one and eliminated the majority of the conditions and restrictions in the Board's original disciplinary order. Specifically, the revised disciplinary order contained only one section labeled "General Requirements" with only nine restrictions and conditions, including:

• Ms. Carpenter shall meet with the Board or its professional staff at such times and places as required by the Board.
• Ms. Carpenter shall not violate the Nursing Practice Act.
• Ms. Carpenter shall inform the Board within ten days of any change of home address or home telephone number.
• Ms. Carpenter shall obey all federal, state and local laws, and all rules and regulations governing the practice ...

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