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Appellate court reinstates discipline for 28-year-old sexual relationship

An appellate court in Alabama reinstated discipline imposed on a psychologist for an inappropriate relationship initiated 28 years before, on grounds that the plaintiff did not show why the long delay would make the discipline unfair. The September 27 decision in Alabama Board of Examiners in Psychology v. Hamilton reversed a lower court which had thrown out the case for the delay in prosecution.

In 2010, a patient accused Alabama psychologist C. Fletcher Hamilton of beginning a sexual relationship with her while acting as her therapist in 1982.  A board action followed the complaint, but during the administrative hearing, Hamilton objected to the entire process, claiming that the actions he was accused of were too far in the past to be the basis of discipline.

In his appeal, Hamilton made the same objection.  A state circuit court reversed the board’s decision, agreeing with Hamilton that 28 years was too long a delay.

The board appealed that decision, and the case went up to the Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama.

That court, in an opinion written by Judge Scott Donaldson, overturned the ruling of the lower court.  When a party claims that the passage of time should bar a discipline action, they must show that the long delay would cause the proceedings to be unfair; Hamilton, Donaldson explained, had not shown that he would be placed at such an unfair disadvantage.

Although Hamilton had claimed that the routine destruction of patient and business records from 1982 compromised his ability to defend himself, the court ruled that he had failed to specify how those records could have helped him prove his case.

The surviving office documents actually showed that Hamilton formally ended the doctor-patient relationship with the woman before their romantic relationship had begun, but the administrative law judge who oversaw Hamilton’s hearing, through the use of calendar entries and correspondence, had found that Hamilton continued to treat the woman with therapeutic advice after the date on which he had stopped keeping formal treatment records for her. Those records would be therefore be irrelevant.

In a separate argument involving the long passage of time, Hamilton also argued that the “rule of repose,” which bars civil actions made after 20 years, should prevent the discipline. However, Judge Donaldson noted, the state legislature had not included the rule when it created the state’s Administrative Procedure Act and there existed no evidence to show that it applied to administrative proceedings. The board had not acted incorrectly when it refused to apply the rule to its proceedings.