Texas Web Vet Loses Court Appeal

Dr. Ronald Hines provided email and telephone advice to pet owners without seeing the animal.

Internet veterinarian Ronald Hines, DVM, Ph.D., isn’t ready to surrender after an appeals court ruled Friday that his constitutional rights were not violated when Texas regulators ordered him to shut down his online practice.

The nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice reported today that Dr. Hines intends to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court and has until late June to file a petition.

The case centers on Hines’ now-suspended business of providing email and telephone advice to pet owners without seeing the animal. Laws in Texas, Mississippi and Utah forbid establishing a veterinarian-client-patient relationship through telephone or electronic means.

Hines’ website, www.2ndchance.info, no longer promotes veterinary advice for a $58 fee, but for the same price he offers to “explain and walk you through the information and the treatment options I give in my [online] articles, and I can give you emotional support in difficult times and with difficult decisions.”

Hines, 71, could not be reached to comment on his legal loss, but his attorney, Jeff Rowes, said the case “stands at the crossroads of Internet freedom, free speech and economic liberty.”

“Dr. Hines gives advice for a living, and advice is speech protected by the First Amendment,” Rowes said. “This case is ripe for review because the federal courts of appeal across the country disagree about the extent to which the First Amendment protects the speech of licensed professionals when they give individually tailored advice.”

Hines caught the attention of the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners in 2012, 10 years after he launched his website. The agency a year later ordered Hines to stop his online practice, placed him on a year’s probation and fined him $500.

Why the state board waited until 2012 to act has not been revealed, but Hines has his suspicions. When the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case in January in New Orleans, according to his website, “the attorney representing the board let slip that a complaint had indeed been received and that it originated in New Hampshire.”

According to Hines’ account, the impoverished and disabled owner of a Schipperke suffering from congestive heart failure was desperate for veterinary care and reached out to him. The owner stated in an email to Hines that veterinarians “charge unreasonable amounts of cash for unnecessary tests on a dog that is terminal and will not give the poor animal relief without large amounts of money.”

Hines reported that he returned the owner’s $5 and contacted a New Hampshire veterinary group to request that a practitioner “donate a bit of time to the case.”

The dog was later euthanized, and “Hines now supposes that someone in the veterinary community in New Hampshire did not appreciate his meddling and tipped off the Texas veterinary boards,” according to his website.

Hines has defended the online practice as a low-cost alternative for pet owners who cannot afford standard veterinary care, who live in areas without nearby practitioners and who receive conflicting advice from veterinarians. He did not prescribe medication and sometimes referred owners to another veterinarian.

The service was not a big moneymaker, reportedly grossing $2,797 in 2011.

After the Texas crackdown, Hines and the Institute for Justice challenged the board on grounds that his rights had been violated under the First and 14th amendments. The appeals court rejected both claims.

“What is clear and undisputed,” Justice Patrick Higginbotham wrote, “is that Hines’ remotely provided services constituted the practice of veterinary medicine,” breaching Texas law.

While a district court judge had suggested that Hines might prevail on freedom of speech, or First Amendment, grounds, the appeals court sided with the state board.

“The challenged state law prohibits the practice of veterinary medicine unless the veterinarian has first physically examined either the animal in question or its surrounding premises,” Higginbotham wrote. “It does not regulate the content of any speech, require veterinarians to deliver any particular message or restrict what can be said once a veterinary-client-patient relationship is established.”

Hines’ assertion that he was denied due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment also found no support from the court.

“The 5th Circuit concluded that the First Amendment either doesn’t apply or barely applies to Dr. Hines even though all he did was communicate with pet owners via the Internet,” said Matt Miller, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Texas office. “The decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and those of other federal courts make it clear that the government cannot force you to give up your First Amendment rights just because you have an occupational license.”

Representatives of the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners and the Texas Veterinary Medical Association could not be reached to comment.

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s Model Veterinary Practice Act requires a veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

“According to the [court] opinion, the requirement that veterinary care be provided only after the veterinarian has seen the animal is, at a minimum, rational,” said AVMA’s assistant director of state relations, Adrian Hochstadt, JD.

“It is reasonable to conclude that the quality of care will be higher, and the risk of misdiagnosis and improper treatment lower, if the veterinarian physically examines the animal in question before treating it,” Hochstadt wrote in his AVMA@Work blog.

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