Friday, October 26, 2012

A Dead Issue

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has remanded with orders to vacate a decision revoking the license of a funeral director and embalmer.

The facts:

After an adjudicatory hearing, the Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers (board) issued an order permanently revoking Troy J. Schoeller's licenses to do business in the Commonwealth as a funeral director and embalmer. G.L. c. 112, §§ 61, 84. The disciplinary action arose after Schoeller made comments to a newspaper reporter about his experiences in the embalming profession and those comments were later published as part of an article about Schoeller. Schoeller did not reveal any confidential or private information about any deceased person or bereaved family members whom he had served. Rather, the board found that Schoeller had violated an ethical regulation prohibiting an embalmer from "comment[ing] on the condition of any dead human body entrusted to his or her care," 239 Code Mass. Regs. § 3.13(7) (1998), and that he had used unprofessional language in his descriptions of dead bodies. By doing so, the board concluded, Schoeller had "engaged in gross misconduct and unprofessional conduct which undermines the integrity of the profession." Schoeller filed a petition in the county court, pursuant to G.L. c. 112, § 64, seeking review of the board's order. The single justice reserved and reported the case without decision.

The board's action violated First Amendment protections:

...while there may be circumstances in which the board can appropriately seek to limit the speech rights of licensed funeral directors and embalmers...in proscribing all "undignified" comments, the board has "traveled in the constitutionally unacceptable direction," Mendoza v. Licensing Bd. of Fall River, 444 Mass. 188, 201 (2005), of banning a substantial amount of protected speech. The board cannot apply § 3.13(7) to restrict such a wide range of speech, nor may it limit that speech by relying on a generalized notion of the integrity of the funeral services profession.

The case is Schoeller v. Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, decided today. (Mike Frisch)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2012/10/the-massachusetts-supreme-judicial-court-has-reversed-a.html

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