Arroyo Grande woman’s prosecution leads to civil rights lawsuit

July 17, 2023

Sarah Erny


After an Arroyo Grande woman was prosecuted for referring to herself as a doctor, three nurse practitioners filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court challenging the law used in her prosecution.

Even though Sarah Erny earned a doctorate in nursing practice, she cannot refer to herself as a doctor. A state law bars anyone who is not a licensed physician or surgeon, including veterinarians, dentists, pharmacists and nurse practitioners, from using the title of doctor.

The lawsuit, filed in June, argues that “this regime goes far beyond patient protection and violates the First Amendment rights of doctors to truthfully describe themselves and their credentials.”

After receiving an anonymous tip that Erny was using the title “Dr.,” in 2019 the California Medical Board launched an investigation into the allegation.

In 2022, Attorney General Rob Bonta filed an accusation against Erny. Working under Bonta’s authority, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow then filed a complaint.

Erny agreed to settle the case in Nov. 2022, which required her to pay a fine of $19,750 and to cease referring to herself as doctor, “even though she is a doctor of nursing practice,” according to the lawsuit.

News of Erny’s prosecution spread throughout the medical community, prompting nurse practitioners Jacqueline Palmer, Heather Lewis and Rodolfo Jaravata-Hanson to file the suit.

“California has appropriated a common title used by a variety of educated professionals and reserved it for legal use by only a select group of professionals,” according to the lawsuit. “Under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, professionals may speak truthfully about their titles without the threat of fines, loss of license, and other regulatory action to strip them of their livelihoods. This case seeks to vindicate those constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit asks the court to determine that the law barring anyone other than licensed physicians or surgeons from using doctor as a title “violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United
States Constitution,” and for court cost and attorney fees.

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I have always referred to and been the patient of dentists, chiropractors, optometrists, who refer to themselves as doctors. I never knew this is illegal on their part. My daughter had a counselor at Cuesta College who has some sort of PHD who insisted being called Dr. West. Psychologists who have a PHD is psychology are referred to as Dr. My niece is a professor at a University and has a PHD is linguistics. She is referred to as Dr. I believe that anyone you has a DOCTORate from an accredited university should be able to use the term Dr. Why should people with a DOCTORate in nursing be any different.

A second opinion is still a good idea.

Sounds a bit petty. Plenty of Cal Poly people with doctorates putting Dr. in front of their name.

It’s only petty if you haven’t personally put the work in to earn a doctorate.

It’s more embarrassing that California constantly churns out laws that are clear constitutional overreach… then spend our tax dollars defending these bad laws. It seems our State government doesn’t believe the First/Second/Fourth/Sixth Amendment should exist.

Now do Chiropractors.

And some Christian ministers on television and internets shows…

The word doctor is derived from the Latin word for ‘teacher’ and was first used for those who were advanced in religious studies. Before it became a term associated with medicine or the medical field it was used to refer to someone who was a teacher of religious studies. Many Christian ministers who use the term doctor as part of their title have PHD’s in Theology, Biblical Studies etc.