JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court has denied
a request for attorneys' fees to be paid to a nurse following a court challenge to a discipline order handed down by the State Board of Nursing.
Karen Carpenter, a nurse who worked at Fulton State Hospital until April 25, 2008, succeeded before St. Louis Circuit Court Judge David Dowd, who found that a three-year probation with conditions and restrictions was "arbitrary, unreasonable and excessive." Dowd reduced the probationary period to one year and eliminated almost all conditions and restrictions, according to the court's order issued Dec. 20.
But when Carpenter sought to collect attorneys' fees because she was the "prevailing party" in the legal proceeding, Dowd rejected the petition, stating that because she was still subject to discipline, she was not a prevailing party.
In the ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with Carpenter's argument that Dowd erred in his finding based on the broad definition of the word "prevails" found in state statute and Missouri and federal court interpretations of the term.
"Ms. Carpenter 'prevailed' when she successfully petitioned the circuit court to reduce the probationary period on her license from three years to one and to eliminate almost all of the conditions and restrictions imposed by the Board," Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge wrote.
The court also found that Dowd did not err in overruling Carpenter's petition for attorney's fees.
"Even though the Board acted in a dual capacity as both an advocate and an adjudicator at the disciplinary hearing, the attorney for the Board never took a position as to what discipline the Board should impose on Ms. Carpenter’s license," Breckenridge wrote. "Rather, it was the Board, acting in its adjudicatory role, that decided to impose the probation conditions with which the circuit court later found fault."
The subject of Carpenter's discipline is related to a failed a drug screening in 2008 in which she tested positive for “painkillers” for which she did not have a prescription, according to court records.
The court concluded that since the nursing board did not take a position as to discipline to be imposed on Carpenter's license, she was not entitled to attorney's fees.
Justice George Draper dissented from the majority, finding that Carpenter should have prevailed in her petition for fees.
"The judgment should be reversed," Draper wrote. "As the principal opinion correctly concludes, Ms. Carpenter was a prevailing party. As the circuit court determined, the particulars of the Board’s disciplinary order were excessive and unreasonable. By reducing the term of her probation and setting aside some of the conditions of that probation, Ms. Carpenter prevailed, in part, against the Board’s overall 'position' that her license should be disciplined."