Contractors: Have a Licensing Problem? Use This Punch-List to Pick the Right Attorney

Maryjane E. Cason

First, a little background: When it comes to contract litigation and collections work, there are many sources of good information for the contractor who needs to hire an attorney. However, a contractor who needs to hire an attorney to handle the defense of his or her contractor’s license before the Contractors State License Board (“CSLB”) has a much more difficult task: Few members of the public, including the contractor’s widest network of connections, will know a sufficiently skilled and experienced licensing lawyer to recommend. Yet the stakes in a contractor license law matter can be shockingly high – far higher than what is generally at stake in a misdemeanor criminal trial or a routine business dispute that ripens into civil litigation.

The critical degree of risk in a contractor licensing case is obvious: the contractor has devoted much time to a costly and highly specialized educational and/or apprentice program. He or she has studied for months and taken a difficult and expensive examination. Then, a number of years of climbing the steep learning curve and much expense have been invested in developing a viable contracting business. For the contractor suddenly faced with license revocation, the loss of the license is the loss of their job and the loss of their means of making a living, possibly the only such means for which the individual contractor is qualified or hire-able. For the individual business owner, the loss of the license means shutting down the business, forfeiting all income from it, while still being obligated for many of the on-going expenses incurred for the purpose of doing business. There are few civil lawsuits where one’s entire income and ability to make a living hangs in the balance. By this standard, then, licensing law is the ultimate high-stakes territory. Yet, still, it is practiced out of the public eye and few who need “the best” licensing lawyer have any idea how to find even a competent one. This article is offered to meet that need.

Why A Punch-List?

Punch lists. All contractors use them. It is the document used in the building trades to organize the successful completion of a construction project. Set forth here is a contractor’s “Punch-List” for successfully organizing a licensing matter. The criteria set forth are task oriented – meaning that this is a Punch-list for what a skilled licensing attorney should do. It is not an inventory of necessary personal characteristics or qualities. A fine mind, extensive specific similar experience, diligent work habits, impeccable honesty, and strong communication skills are all critical, to be sure. But there is no need to draft a Punch-list for those attributes– everyone can be held to know that those qualities are essential. Instead, this Punch-list sets out what you need your Licensing lawyer to do in your case. Of course, every case is different by its facts and circumstances, and every case presents issues that require particular decisions and actions by the lawyer for the contractor. But based on more than 30 years extensive experience, there is in fact an identifiable “Punch-list” for legal services that will always position the client’s case for the best possible result. So, in addition to the special requirements of your unique licensing law problem, this is what your potential Licensing attorney needs to be proposing to do in your case:

The Punch-list for Effective Contractor License Law Representation:

1. Early, comprehensive and thorough fact-gathering:

  • Issue formal legal demands compelling the CSLB to share ALL of the investigation package and ALL of the evidence the agency intends to use against you.
  • Subpoena all witness statements, photographs, agency records and other material the CSLB relies on for its allegations or decision against you.

2. Early and regular intervention to reduce the case:

  • Immediately intervene with the CSLB investigator and other officials to persuade the agency not to go forward, or to go forward on a less serious set of allegations and proposed penalty.

3. Regular and on-going skilled negotiations with Board representatives, including the Attorney General or CSLB Counsel, and including an Administrative Law Judge sitting as Settlement Officer, to reduce the allegations and the proposed penalty.

  • Presentation of alternative proposals for license discipline, or case specific conditions for license issuance.

4. Professional preparation of your case:

  • Identify, find and prepare for direct and cross-examination all witnesses supporting your position.
  • Prepare cross-examination of all witnesses opposing you.
  • Create diagrams, video, maps, photo-journals, bench-book and other exhibits that support your case.
  • Prepare, file, and argue legal motions that may limit the CSLB’s ability under the law to discipline you, or may keep out of evidence material that is unfavorable to you.

5. Presentation of your case at hearing:

  • Object to the admissibility of unreliable evidence against you.
  • Offer into evidence all exhibits that support you.
  • Examine and cross-examine all witnesses.
  • Argue the case and submit a thorough post-hearing brief applying the law to the evidence admitted at the hearing.

6. Completion of any applicable post-hearing processes:

  • Submit formal written objections to an unfavorable proposed Decision and argue a request for re-consideration of any unfavorable decision.
  • Appear before the Contractors State License Board to argue in support of or in opposition to the Proposed Decision.
  • Preserve your rights to file an expedited writ proceeding challenging in civil court an unfavorable agency decision.
  • Preserve the integrity, accuracy and completeness of the administrative record in the event that a challenge in court is necessary.

That’s it! That’s the Punch-list for skilled representation in a contracting licensing matter. When you go for your free consultation, these are the tasks you need to be listening for when the attorney describes his or her plan for your case. If all of the lawyer’s talk is about hearings – or all about negotiations, or all about any other limited slice of a contractor licensing case – beware and move on. If the proposed Agreement for Services or Retainer Agreement doesn’t spell out the entire Punch-list, you need to talk further or talk to other lawyers before you sign and surrender a check.

When your livelihood or business is at stake, you need a lawyer who can do right by you in all aspects of your fight. A licensing dispute in which your professional identity and ability to earn a living are at stake can be the single most significant, expensive and emotionally challenging legal battle you will ever in life go through. Don’t go through it alone; don’t go through it with anyone who is less skilled, less able, or less willing than you need and deserve to protect your right to your occupation.

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