Director of the Veterinary Medical Board Named in Telemedicine Lawsuit Filed by the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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By Stella Gerson

On May 3, 2021 in San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, et al. v. Jessica Sieferman, Case No. 2:21-cv-00786-TLN-KJN (E.D. Cal.), plaintiffs San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and several veterinarians and animal owners, filed a complaint in federal court against Jessica Sieferman, in her official capacity as the executive officer of the California Veterinary Medical Board (VMB). Through this lawsuit, plaintiffs seek to permanently allow telemedicine appointments for both new and existing animal patients even after the pandemic ends. Plaintiffs further state that “[t]his disparity between the rules governing speech relating to human medicine and the rules governing speech relating to veterinary medicine is entirely arbitrary, and underscores the absence of any compelling state interest supporting California’s restrictions on veterinary speech.” Plaintiffs conclude that California has violated their constitutional right to equal protection of the laws by continuing this disparate treatment.

During the pandemic, VMB issued a telemedicine waiver through the Department of Consumer Affairs, which permitted remote veterinary visits for existing and new medical conditions for pet patients who have a preexisting veterinarian relationship. In the complaint, plaintiffs allege that the veterinarian-client-patient regulations found in section 2032.1, Title 16 of the California Code of Regulations regarding telemedicine, violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting veterinarians from using telemedicine to speak about the animal patients’ health. The complaint provides that the veterinarian-client speech restrictions categorically prohibit veterinarians from giving medical advice to new patients, or to existing patients for new issues unless the veterinarian has personally performed a hands-on examination of the animal. Plaintiffs also assert that these restrictions are not in the best interests of consumers, veterinary professionals, or animal patients and present a significant barrier to providing affordable, effective, and accessible veterinary healthcare.

On May 25, 2021, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, and a hearing was set for July 22, 2021, but was later vacated. On June 4, 2021, District Judge Troy L. Nunley ordered the plaintiffs to submit their opposition to the defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint, and on June 24, 2021, plaintiffs filed their opposition. As of this writing, there has been no decision by the court related to the motion to dismiss.

At the Veterinary Medical Board’s July 23, 2021 meeting, the members discussed this piece of litigation in closed session, pursuant to Government Code section 11126(e)(1) and (2)(A) [Agenda Item 21]. During this time, the Board continues to extend the temporary allowance of telemedicine, which is currently due to end on October 31, 2021.

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