When your license is on the line or you are confronted with a troubling ethics dilemma, served with a subpoena, or served with a lawsuit, you will of course be nervous, scared and perhaps angry. My goal is to help you calm down and act in a way that will minimize or eliminate the possibility of damage to your career. I can also help you prevent the filing of an ethics complaint or a lawsuit in the first place. The following Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) should help guide you in protecting your professional career:
How can I make sure that I never have an ethics complaint or lawsuit filed against me?
Unfortunately, you can only ensure this by not practicing social work. Even the best, most ethical social workers sometimes have ethics complaints and/or lawsuits filed against them. Your goal should be twofold: (1) minimize the number of ethics complaints and lawsuits filed against you; and (2) make sure that any complaints or lawsuits filed have no foundation to them and are quickly dismissed.
Are there any “practice tips” that can help me ensure that my practice is set up in a way to best comply with the ethics rules?
Yes. You can set up an appointment to meet with me, and I will work through a checklist that can assist you in providing all the ethical protections possible to reduce the chances of receiving ethical complaints and/or being sued. It is always better to be proactive to ensure that you have incorporated standard practices that will minimize the chance of ethical issues, complaints, or lawsuits. I can review your standard forms and procedures and help you revise them in a way to provide you with the greatest protection.
What if I am unsure about an ethical issue when it arises?
If you are in doubt as to whether your anticipated actions or conduct comply with the NASW Code of Ethics or Iowa law, it is essential to get the advice of an attorney who is familiar with both the Code of Ethics, Iowa rules, and the rulings of the Iowa courts concerning the issues confronting you. You can contact my office and set up an appointment to meet privately with me. You can be open and candid with me, as our conversations are protected by attorney-client privilege. You can also share otherwise confidential client information and documents with me without violating clients’ rights when you do so to obtain ethics advice or to defend a lawsuit. Your obligation of confidentiality to the client applies to me as well. I can give you professional recommendations for handling the issue.
How do I respond when served with a subpoena?
The Code of Ethics specifically states: “Social workers should protect the confidentiality of clients during legal proceedings to the extent permitted by law. When a court of law or other legally authorized body orders social workers to disclose confidential or privileged information without a client’s consent and such disclosure could cause harm to the client, social workers should request that the court withdraw the order or limit the order as narrowly as possible or maintain the records under seal, unavailable for public inspection.” Just complying with the subpoena may be a violation of your Code of Ethics and Iowa law. You should contact me immediately, and I will prepare a response to the subpoena that complies with Iowa law and with the NASW Code of Ethics, providing your client with the fullest protections.
Can a parent sign a release and obtain records concerning their child?
Not always. If you believe that releasing the information pursuant to a release signed by the parent is not in the best interest of the child or can damage your therapeutic relationship with the child, Iowa law provides an opportunity to refuse to honor that release. However, specific procedures are required. If this occurs, you should contact me immediately, and I will assist you in responding in a way that complies with Iowa law, the NASW Code of Ethics and is in the best interest of your client.
What should I do if I am served with an ethics complaint or lawsuit?
You should contact me immediately and set up an appointment as soon as possible to discuss the matter. Do not talk to your client, the complainant, or the opposing attorney about the matter until you have spoken to me. A written response must be filed within specified timelines, so time is of the essence. When you meet with me, bring a copy of the complaint or lawsuit, a copy of any client files (including your notes and billings) related to the client matters involved in the complaint or lawsuit, and any documents you have relating to your professional liability insurance.
What about the costs of representation on ethical complaints or lawsuits?
Your professional liability (malpractice) insurance plays an important role in both situations. Those policies usually require that the social worker, counselor, or therapist advise their carrier of any disciplinary action or lawsuit. You should promptly notify me, and I will contact your professional liability carrier of the complaint. Fortunately, these policies normally provide payment for defense of disciplinary cases, and those defense costs are not usually subject to your deductible. This means that, depending on your insurance policy, you may not be personally required to pay anything for my defense of you in the disciplinary proceeding. In the case of a lawsuit, your insurance will not only pay any settlement or judgment but will also pay the costs of defense (which may be subject to a deductible). Promptly provide me with any ethics complaint or lawsuit papers, and I will contact your insurance carrier and begin preparing a defense immediately.
Can you help me with the self-care I may need?
Yes. While I am not a counselor, I can help you relax, calm down, and give you a dispassionate view of the case. Stress is often caused by uncertainty. I can help you understand the process, the timing, and our defenses. If you are struggling with controlling your emotions about the situation, contact me immediately.