Eight cases highlight how firms stumble over state regulatory requirements.
By Jerri-Lynn Wier
Engineers are held to high standards with good reason, since so much depends on the accuracy and integrity of their work. And while the profession has earned its reputation for precision and diligence, lapses are inevitable, as evidenced by the number of disciplinary actions reported by state engineering boards each month.
Some of these are obvious cases of bad behavior, as in the case of an Idaho man who completed engineering education and exams, but rather than go through the licensing process, forged one instead. Yet even conscientious professionals are vulnerable to errors and oversights that can lead to citations. This article examines recent cases that highlight some of the most common missteps reported by state boards.
Case 1: Reporting changes in company information
Most firms understand the importance of maintaining accurate records with state authorities. Yet keeping up with changes to officers, qualifiers, contact information, and other key information can require frequent updates for large and growing firms. And as the following case illustrates, the specific reporting requirements in each state are not always well understood.
In November 2017, a New York firm with an active certificate of authorization (COA) in Florida was cited for failing to meet reporting requirements despite filing an application to change the company’s information with the Florida Board of Professional Engineers (FBPE). When a principal officer left that position, the company notified the FBPE promptly and appointed a replacement. Yet the firm failed to record the new principal officer with the Florida secretary of state or file a board resolution with the engineering board.
In Florida, one or more principal officers of a firm must be a Florida-licensed engineer. If the P.E. named as a principal officer is not named as the president, vice president, secretary, or treasurer of the corporation or Limited Liability Company (LLC), then the application must be accompanied by documentation from the entity’s charter or bylaws which provides the title of the officer and that the P.E. named as such officer is empowered to bind the corporation or LLC in all of its activities which fall within the definition of the practice of engineering as that term is defined in Section 471.005(7), Florida Statutes (https://fbpe.org/licensure/application-process/certificate-of-authorization).
By the time the error was corrected, the firm was hit with $1,247 in fines and fees. In addition, an officer had to appear before the board to explain how the error occurred and what quality control measures the firm would implement to prevent future violations, multiplying the expense.
Cases 2 and 3: Missing COAs
In some cases, firms register with the secretary of state and miss licensing requirements of the engineering board, as these two cases illustrate.
A New York firm had a longstanding relationship with a client that encompassed projects in several states. Around March 2018, the firm completed work for the client in South Carolina through a South Carolina-licensed engineer in responsible charge. Yet the company did not have an active COA in the state. In response to the citation, the firm’s representative indicated that they believed that their registration through the secretary of state’s office was sufficient. The firm received a public reprimand and fine that amounted to more than half of the project fees.
In a similar case, a South Carolina firm was cited for lack of a COA. The firm’s owner, a licensed P.E., believed that secretary of state registration was sufficient because he was the firm’s sole engineer. He immediately stopped work when he realized the COA was required and self-reported the oversight, but nonetheless received a reprimand and $500 fine.
In some states, sole proprietorships may operate under a licensed engineer’s own name without a separate COA, but the specific requirements vary, and this option is not available everywhere. In this case, the firm was operating under a fictitious name, which required a COA.
Cases 4 and 5: Stamping plans and title blocks
Errors surrounding signing and sealing plans and use of a firm’s title block are very common, and not confined to firms that are “stamp renting” or deliberately evading the law. In fact, stamping is a frequent source of questions submitted to state boards.
In New Jersey, a P.E. was awarded a municipal infrastructure contract. The engineer brought on a subconsultant, also a licensed P.E., to prepare plans and specifications for traffic signal installations. The engineer submitted all of the documents for the project under his own seal, even though many of the drawings were prepared by the subconsultant, which led to a $500 penalty. New Jersey law stipulates, “Where the document includes the work of more than one professional, each professional shall sign and seal the document with clear reference to the work that he or she has performed” (https://www.njconsumeraffairs.gov/regulations/Chapter-40-State-Board-of-Professional-Engineers-and-Land-Surveyors.pdf).
Often, citations result from failing to stamp all required documents. A California engineer was disciplined by the Texas board in November 2017 for failing to include the firm name and registration number on engineering documents. The engineer received a two-year probated suspension, an administrative penalty of $4,800, and an order to complete ethics training.
Case 6: Missing renewals
Undetected license lapses remain one of the most common causes of inadvertent unlicensed practice, particularly for firms operating across large territories. Unfortunately, a single lapse can prove very costly, as the following case shows.
In March 2017, a Florida firm’s COA lapsed due to failure to file a renewal. Yet the Florida engineering board found evidence that the firm continued to provide services as late as July, including documents bearing the firm’s title block. In April 2018, having failed to respond to the board’s inquiries, the firm was fined $6,089 and its license suspended pending appearance before the board. In Florida, the fee to renew a COA for two years is $98.75.
Case 7: Failing to report discipline
Engineers are generally required to report discipline by one board to other states where they are licensed, often as part of renewal applications. Failing to report discipline where required becomes a separate offense, one that can multiply the pain of the original citation dramatically.
In 2017, for example, a Nevada-based firm was disciplined by the Idaho board for failing to disclose on a renewal application discipline
imposed by the state of California. The Idaho board levied an administrative penalty of $2,500 for failure to report.
Case 8: Missing continuing education
Failing to complete continuing education (CE) credits or misreporting hours continues to be a major source of citations. A case from Texas illustrates the hazard of playing fast and loose with CE. An engineer submitted a license renewal that confirmed completion of 15 hours of professional development. An audit revealed that the hours had never been completed, resulting in a two-year probated suspension and a $4,000 fine. It is very common for states to randomly audit CE credits, while other states require that you upload proof of CE completion credits.
Considering the potential reciprocal discipline in other states, that’s a steep penalty to pay over 15 hours of CE.
Set your firm up for success
As these cases illustrate, it is advantageous for engineers to bring the same level of precision and diligence to regulatory requirements that they bring to their drawings and specifications. Yet with all the priorities a busy firm must juggle from day to day, it is quite easy for something like a $98 license renewal that rolls around once every two years to slip by unnoticed.
By far the best way to ensure success is to bring the right tools to the job. Managing all corporate records and licenses through cloud-based compliance software, and getting expert support as needed to ensure proper licensure in each state, is the best way to ensure consistent licensing and reporting.
Jerri-Lynn Wier is an attorney and compliance specialist for Harbor Compliance (www.harborcompliance.com/compliance-solutions-engineering-firms), a provider of licensing and entity management solutions for businesses. She has 20 years of experience in compliance and has licensed numerous large architecture, engineering, and construction firms. Contact her at 888-995-5895 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Detailed state-level licensing information is available in Harbor Compliance’s engineering guides at www.harborcompliance.com/information/engineering-license.