By now, unless you do not have access to a television, newspaper or the internet, you have likely heard that a Minnesota dentist, Dr. Walter Palmer, is under scrutiny for a hunt in Zimbabwe that took the life of a beloved lion named Cecil.
In the wake of this revelation, there has been a tremendous public outcry for Dr. Palmer to be “brought to justice.” However, as detailed in this excellent blog post on “Above the Law”, the likelihood of Dr. Palmer being extradited to Zimbabwe and charged with a crime is slim. Equally unlikely are U.S. charges, given that Dr. Palmer did not traffic any “trophies” from the hunt back to this country.
So does that mean that Dr. Palmer will not face legal consequences for the illegal hunt?
But what about his dentist’s license?
Dentists, like other professionals (doctors, lawyers, real estate brokers and salespersons, accountants, veterinarians, et al) must obtain a license from the State of Minnesota in order to practice their profession in this state. The Minnesota Board of Dentistry regulates the dentistry profession in Minnesota and Minnesota Statute Section 150A.08 sets forth grounds by which the Board may “refuse or by order suspend or revoke, limit or modify by imposing conditions it deems necessary, the license of a dentist, dental therapist, dental hygienist, or dental assisting….”
One of the grounds for suspension or revocation of a dentistry license is “conviction, including a finding or verdict of guilt, an admission of guilt, or a no contest plea, in any court of a felony or gross misdemeanor reasonably related to the practice of dentistry as evidenced by a certified copy of the conviction”, so if Dr. Palmer was prosecuted and found guilty (or pled guilty) in either Zimbabwe or the U.S., this clause could certainly jeopardize his Minnesota license.
There is, however, another clause that permits suspension or revocation for “gross immorality”, and this is where it gets interesting.
Sometimes, in dealing with licensing statutes, the licensing board or agency promulgates rules which guide the agency’s interpretation and application of its statutes. In regards to the “gross immorality” clause in Section 150A.08, however, there is no such rule that further defines what that term means. Hence, the Board of Dentistry has a wide amount of discretion which it could exercise to determine that participation in an illegal lion hunt 8700 miles away constitutes “gross immorality,” regardless of the lack of a nexus to the actual practice of dentistry.
Does that sound like a bit of a stretch? Trust me, as someone who has dealt with a wide variety of state regulatory agencies and licensing boards in my almost 15 years of practicing law, it is not. Licensed businesses are oftentimes subject to a statutory framework that leaves several questions unaddressed, with the agency personnel empowered to supply missing terms or interpretation. As such, the opinions of the enforcement officials themselves play a significant role in determining the fate of a licensed profession. Further, keep in mind that the Board of Dentistry members are appointed by the Governor, and it was Governor Dayton who this week issued a statement in which he said that he was “…just so disgusted with that man….to lure a lion like that out of the preserve and shoot him, I mean, how could anybody think that’s sport?”
So, while Dr. Palmer may very well steer clear of criminal prosecution both in the U.S. and Zimbabwe, the public outcry over his actions could trigger a suspension or revocation of his license to practice dentistry in the State of Minnesota, either temporarily or permanently.
In other words, Cecil the Lion may go down in history as the first African lion to take out a Minnesota dentistry practice.
Jeffrey O’Brien is an attorney with the Minneapolis-based law firm of Lommen Abdo. NOTE: the information contained herein is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. Contacting the author does not create an attorney-client relationship.