Justices: Nonprofit can't be denied license because of lack of licensed counselor

By Melissa Busch | Mar 9, 2017

CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court recently overturned a lower court’s decision to deny a behavioral health center license to a domestic violence center that failed to have a licensed counselor.

The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ruled that the Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification could not deny a behavioral health center license to Domestic Violence Counseling Center (DVCC), because its executive director does not have a professional counselor license. The appeals court found that the DVCC was exempt from the state’s licensing provision because the organization is a nonprofit corporation, reversing a January 2016 decision by from Kanawha Circuit Court.

DVCC appealed the lower court’s decision after it had affirmed the decision by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and the Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification denying the counseling center’s license application because it does not employ a licensed counselor, according to court records. During an administrative hearing, the examiner found that West Virginia code required all professional personnel at behavioral health centers to be licensed.

The circuit court agreed with the state licensing office’s interpretation of the administrative rule and “justified its decision largely on pragmatic grounds,” according to the court decision. The circuit court reasoned that behavioral health centers have many regulatory mandates, which only can be accomplished by licensed personnel.

DVCC argued that its executive director, Elizabeth Crawford, the only provider of counseling services at the organization, did not need to hold a license because state law exempts counselors at public and private nonprofits from this provision. The main point of DVCC’s argument is that the language of the rule plain and in no way ambiguous, so nothing should impede it in obtaining a behavioral health center license.

The state licensing office maintained that state codes give it the authority to require all professional staff and consultants of behavioral health centers to hold professional licenses. The office called the code ambiguous, giving it reasons to interpret the code this way.

The appeals court found a problem with this rationale, noting the “words of its administrative rule do not say that. There is simply no language in the rule indicating that it should be interpreted in the way advanced by OHFLAC,” according to the court decision.

Furthermore, the appeals court consistently has found that statute language is clear and unambiguous, it must apply it as written, without turning to statutory construction resources. “Where the language of a statute is clear and without ambiguity the plain meaning is to be accepted without resorting to the rules of interpretation,” according to the court opinion.

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West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

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