What Nurses Need to Know About the Cullen Law

What is the “Cullen Law?”
The “Cullen Law,” officially known as the “Health Care Professional Responsibility and Reporting Enhancement Act,” was passed by New Jersey in November of 2005. It requires health care facilities to notify the state Division of Consumer Affairs with any information regarding impairment, incompetence or negligence by a health care worker that could endanger patients. However, the law fails to clearly define what that means. This lapse has led employers to subjectively and erratically report actions, including simple human errors and mistakes that can be more a result of inexperience than incompetence. 
The law was passed in response to the crimes of a nurse named Charles Cullen, who in 2004 was convicted of murdering at least 29 patients over several years while working at multiple hospitals throughout the region. The murders were viewed as a failure of the health care system, as existing reporting guidelines were not utilized by his employers and Cullen was able to move from one facility to the next without detection.
How Does the Law Affect You?
The “Cullen Law” mandates that health care professionals must be reported to the Division of Consumer Affairs within 7 days of a questionable action, and referred to the relevant state board overseeing a health care profession. This “rush to judgment” leaves little time for investigation or grievance procedure. While the law covers a wide group of professionals, the largest number of actions have been taken against nurses. Among the other professions covered are physical and respiratory therapists as well as social workers. 
The “Cullen Law” does not provide clear guidelines for what type of action should be reported. A taskforce set up to develop guidelines did not reach consensus on a final reporting document, leaving considerable ambiguity. Employers are using their own discretion in determining what types of actions should be reported. Other professional boards covering other disciplines have their own guidelines and/or procedures. Since our only experience so far has been with nurses reported, we can only verify those outcomes.
After the Board of Nursing finishes investigating the charges brought before the Division of Consumer Affairs, they determine if a charge has merit, and if it does the nurse is sanctioned. If the Board of Nursing finds that the charge did not have merit, the nurse is issued a letter detailing the charges that were brought and saying the Board did not find enough evidence to bring action against the nurse at this time. Regardless of whether or not the nurse was sanctioned, under the “Cullen Law” the employer is mandated for seven years to provide detailed information to prospective employers about the charge or charges made against the individual. This information does not include any investigation outcomes, and this provision applies to all titles.
The impact of the “Cullen Law” is that highly qualified nurses and other health care workers with many years of service in their professions are not able to work in their field. The “Cullen Law” makes it nearly impossible for nurses who have been reported to the Division of Consumer Affairs to find employment both during the period of time their case is pending investigation and then for the next seven years even if the Board of Nursing does not take action against them.
Why is the Cullen Law Inadequate?
  • The short time frame for reporting allows little time for investigation or defense.
  • The lack of specificity means subjective application of the law by employers, raising the possibility of punitive abuse.
  • The volume of reporting has overwhelmed the Board of Nursing, creating a lingering delay in investigation and resolution.
  • The delay in investigation makes finding work a near impossibility.
  • Even when the Board finds no cause for action in the charge, they are prohibited by another statute from releasing any information –including the fact that there was an investigation or its outcome.
  • For seven years the employer is required to pass along to any prospective employer all charges made against an individual (including all accusations, regardless of merit), even if there was no action warranted or taken.
  • If the reported action leads to arbitration, and JNESO is successful in reinstating the employee or removing the discipline that resulted –it does not undo the seven-year reporting requirement of the accusations, nor is the Board of Nursing bound by the arbitration outcome.
How Can You Protect Your Career in the Age of Cullen?
As JNESO works to garner legislative support for a change to the Cullen Law, it is important that you have the information needed to protect your license and your career. JNESO is here to help you every step of the way, so please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions about the law. Please keep in mind the following: 
  • Educate yourself and your colleagues about the “Cullen Law” and how it could affect your career. 
  • Remember to always take a JNESO Steward with you when called into a meeting with management that could result in discipline. 
  • BEWARE – phone calls can also be disciplinary interviews. 
  • Let the union know RIGHT AWAY if you or anyone you know has been reported. 
For more information please contact:
Barbara Conklin, MA, RN
JNESO’s Director of Practice
(800) 292-0542 x112