The fundamental right to due process is a cornerstone of constitutional protection, ensuring that individuals are treated fairly within legal proceedings. Nevertheless, the delicate line between potential bias and genuine due process violations is not always easily discernible. A telling example can be found in a noteworthy case from East Baton Rouge, where the revocation of a psychologist’s license came under scrutiny for alleged due process infringements. This case probes the intricate considerations surrounding bias, procedure, and the boundary between legitimate legal actions and violations of constitutional rights.
This case concerns the revocation of Dr. Eric R. Cerwonka’s psychologist’s license. An administrative complaint and supplemental notice, including an additional statement of material facts and matters, was filed against Dr. Cerwonka, alleging he violated the Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists (the Board’s) rules and regulations. After a disciplinary hearing, the Board revoked his license to practice psychology in Louisiana. Dr. Cerwonka then filed a petition with the Nineteenth Judicial District Court for the Parish of East Baton Rouge, where he claimed the Board lacked substantial evidence showing his license should be revoked and that his right to due process was violated.
The District Court found the Board violated Dr. Cerwonka’s right to due process by allowing a member of the same law firm as the Board’s general counsel to serve as presiding officer during the administrative proceeding and by permitting the individual who represented Dr. Cerwonka in a prior legal matter to serve as the Board’s prosecuting attorney.
An appeal with the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal follows. It is undisputed that Amy Groves Lowe, the Board’s general counsel, was a member of the same legal firm as the presiding officer at the administrative hearing, Lloyd Lunceford. The Board, however, contends that this connection, without a showing of impropriety, is not enough to violate Dr. Cerwonka’s due process.
After reviewing applicable law, the Court of Appeal agreed with the Board and found that a party basing their procedural due process claim on a combination of functions must show the risk of bias is intolerably high. In other words, the existence of a combination of functions is not enough to support a claim. See Withrow v. Larkin.
The Court of Appeal found that Ms. Lowe did not prosecute or defend the allegations against Dr. Cerwonka, took no position on any of the objections put forth by James R. Raines, the Board’s prosecuting attorney, or the defense counsel, did not cross-examine any witnesses, lodge any objections, or advocate for any party. Additionally, the Court of Appeal found that Mr. Lunceford did not decide the merits of the underlying case but merely ruled on the admissibility of testimony and evidence. Under these circumstances, the Court of Appeal found that, without showing actual bias or prejudice, the fact that Ms. Lowe and Mr. Lunceford were members of the same legal firm was insufficient to deny Dr. Cerwonka his due process rights.
Next, the Board claimed the District Court erred in finding that Mr. Raines, prosecuting attorney, violated Dr. Cerwonka’s due process. Dr. Cerwonka argued, in part, that Mr. Raines represented Dr. Cerwonka in a prior custody case where a substantial fee dispute arose between Mr. Raines’ legal firm and Dr. Cerwonka and, therefore, Mr. Raines should have been recused. Under LA. R. Prof’l. Cond. 1.9; an attorney is prohibited from representing a person or entity that is adverse to a former client when the matters are the same or substantially related.
However, the Court of Appeal found that the issues presented in the former child custody or collections matter and the current licensing issue could not be considered substantially related. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal found the employment of Mr. Raines did not violate Dr. Cerwonka’s due process rights as prosecuting attorney in this matter. As such, the District Court’s judgment was reversed.
This case is a poignant reminder that due process is nuanced and requires careful evaluation. While bias concerns may arise, it takes more than just associations and connections to definitively prove a breach of due process rights. The East Baton Rouge case underscores the importance of meticulous scrutiny of the circumstances, showing that the mere existence of affiliations or past relationships isn’t necessarily indicative of bias or prejudice. Legal proceedings can be intricate terrain, and in instances where due process claims emerge, the guidance of a skilled attorney becomes invaluable in navigating the complexities and securing justice.
Additional Sources: IN THE MATTER OF DR. ERIC R. CERWONKA, PSY.D
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Samantha Calhoun
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