Wanglin v College of Acupuncturists of Alberta, 2023 ABCA 25
The appellant, Dr. Boxin Wanglin, is an acupuncturist regulated by the College of Acupuncturists of Alberta (the College) (previously known as the College and Association of Acupuncturists of Alberta) and its former President. Another acupuncturist filed a complaint against Dr. Wanglin alleging professional misconduct. The College proceeded to a disciplinary hearing on three counts: i) that it was unclear to the attendees at a continuing education event how she was acting on behalf of the AATCMPA or the College; ii) while President of the College she was also President of the AATCMPA and or held some other position in that organization; and iii) failed to disclose to the College a conflict or potential conflict of interest. A hearing panel of the College found Dr. Wanglin guilty of professional misconduct on two of the three allegations. The College’s Council Review Panel upheld the decision on appeal. Dr. Wanglin then appealed to the Alberta Court of Appeal (ABCA). For the reasons below, her appeal was dismissed.
This complaint is governed by the Health Disciplines Act, RSA 2000 c H-2. The allegations against Dr. Wanglin relate to whether she breached the College’s Conflict of Interest Policy and Bylaws by holding a leadership role with another association, the Alberta Acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese Medical Practitioner Association (AATCMPA), when she was also a member of the executive and President of the College.
The ABCA held that the Hearing Panel and the Review Panel (the Panels) were better positioned than the Court to assess the impact of Dr. Wanglin’s conduct on the public interest and the reputation of the profession from the perspective of a reasonable member of the public. Thus, the ABCA held that they must defer to the findings of the Hearing Panel and the Review Panel absent some clearly unreasonable conclusion or clear mistake of fact or error of principle on the part of the Panels. Dr. Wanglin was not able to show any such error.
The ABCA agreed with Dr. Wanglin that not every breach of a policy, including the College’s Conflict of Interest Policy, necessarily amounts to professional misconduct. However, the ABCA found that the factual record in this case was extensive and nuanced, and there was no basis for interfering with the Hearing Tribunal’s conclusions that Dr. Wanglin’s overlapping involvement as President of the College and executive member of the AATCMPA constituted professional misconduct.
This case underscores the need for members of any organization to be familiar with and adhere to the policies and procedures of that organization prior joining another organization, whether in a leadership role or even in some cases, as a mere member. In addition, professionals governed by regulatory colleges must be familiar with the policies of the organization they intend to join, and must check to see if joining a particular organization may result in them falling foul of the policies of their regulatory college. Allegations of conflict of interest are not uncommon thus, requiring individuals to have an understanding of the principles underlying conflicts of interest. Failure to do so may result not only in being disciplined by their regulatory college but also, possibly, a loss of reputation. A basic question to ask yourself is: Will joining this organization result in a conflict of interest with other organizations I belong to, including my regulatory College?