Court favors state regulators on examination requirement

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Appellate judges dismissed a Texas veterinarian’s claims that the state violated his rights by prohibiting veterinary consultations by phone or email without physical examinations.

In a unanimous ruling, Circuit Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham wrote that the state had the authority and rational justification for requiring a physical examination to establish a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. He delivered the ruling for a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Gavel and stethoscopeDr. Ronald S. Hines had given veterinary advice to pet owners by phone and email in exchange for fees—which he sometimes waived—starting in 2002, court documents state. In 2012, the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners told him he was violating state law, and he and the board reached a negotiated agreement to one year of probation, a stayed suspension of his license, a $500 fine, and retesting in the jurisprudence portion of the state’s veterinarian licensing examination, the documents indicate.

Dr. Hines sued the board in 2013, alleging that the state violated his rights to free speech, work without arbitrary and irrational interference, and equal protection under the law, the last of which he claimed was denied through regulations intended to protect brick-and-mortar veterinary practices from competition, the court documents state.

Texas’ veterinary licensing act allows the practice of veterinary medicine only under a veterinarian-client-patient relationship, established by physical examination of a patient or visits to the premises where the animal is kept, as described in regulations published by the examiners board. Establishing relationships through visits lets veterinarians treat agricultural herds or flocks without examining each animal.

In court documents, Dr. Hines stated that he retired from conventional veterinary practice in 2002 and that he was unable to continue that work because of his age and nerve damage–related disability caused by a 1977 fall from a catwalk onto machinery. He started writing about pet health and care in February 2002, and messages from animal owners persuaded him to provide advice.

His filings describe help given to clients such as a couple who needed care for their cat while living in rural Nigeria and a disabled man in New Hampshire who could not afford care for his dog. He also alleged that other veterinarians, including some on television and radio programs, were giving the same types of veterinary advice he was giving.

The appellate ruling indicates state regulation on practice of a profession may have incidental impact on speech without violating the Constitution, and the requirement for a physical examination is related to a legitimate government interest in reducing the risk of misdiagnosis and improper treatment.