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Lower court overstepped by slashing discipline against licensee

An appeals court in Alabama, in a May 17 ruling, threw out a decision by a state circuit court that had drastically reduced disciplinary sanctions imposed by the state’s Board of Pharmacy against a licensee who operated some of her pharmacy locations without a permit or a licensed pharmacist on site. The lower court had acted outside of its authority by substituting its judgment for that of the board, the appeals court found (Alabama State Board of Pharmacy vs. Parks).

The trouble in this case stemmed from several pharmacies in Alabama run by pharmacist Demetrius Yvonne Parks. When one of Parks’s pharmacies closed because the building housing it was condemned, Parks re-opened in another location, but failed to obtain a pharmacy permit for that new location. This indiscretion led to a complaint from the state’s Medicaid agency, prompting the State Board of Pharmacy to begin an investigation.

When a board investigator visited the new location, he found only a single, unlicensed employee, who told the investigator that, upon receiving prescriptions from patients, she would forward them to one of Parks’s other pharmacies and would later pick up the filled prescription and deliver them to the patients.

Parks made other questionable decisions regarding her pharmacies’ licenses and operation. Investigations revealed that a second pharmacy was also unattended by a licensed pharmacist while filling prescriptions, and an inspector turned up several inaccurate or improperly-processed records for controlled substances in various Parks locations. In 2014, she closed two pharmacies in Montgomery, prompting the board to end their permits, but then Parks re-opened one of the pharmacies, using the now-defunct permit of one of the two locations.

The board later determined that Parks engaged in this permit shuffling in order to avoid paying a $300,000 Medicaid recoupment order. Last, one of the pharmacies purchased controlled substances using an invalid controlled-substance registration number on almost two-dozen occasions.

After a disciplinary process, the board found Parks and her pharmacies in violation of the state’s Pharmacy Practice Act, eventually suspended her pharmacist license for five years, fined her $27,000, placed the permits for two of her pharmacies on probation for five years, and fined them a collective $47,000.

Parks appealed to a state circuit court, who, despite finding that Parks had violated the Practice Act and that the board’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, ruled that the sanctions imposed by the board on Parks were unreasonable. The court reduced the penalties, cutting Parks’s five-year suspension to only three months and completely striking her administrative fine, and reduced the pharmacies’ probation from five years to one while reducing their collective fines to only $4,000.

The board appealed this decision, arguing that the circuit court improperly substituted its judgment for that of the board regarding the penalties imposed against Parks. The case rose to the state’s Court of Civil Appeals.

In its ruling, the appellate court reversed the decision of the circuit, holding that the lower court had overstepped its authority. “In this case,” Judge William Thompson wrote, “the circuit court did not state a reason as to why it believed that the penalties imposed were unreasonable. . .The board found that Parks and the pharmacies were guilty of the 46 charges alleged against them,” as well as additional violations. The circuit court had agreed with those findings. Noting the deferential standard required of courts reviewing a decision by the pharmacy board, Judge Thompson wrote: “The board had the statutory authority to suspend Parks’s license, to place the pharmacies on probation, and to impose the administrative fines against Parks and the pharmacies. Under our standard of review, we cannot say that the board acted in an unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious manner in imposing those sanctions.” He remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings.