Another Tip of the Week will continue with the theme around employment law and complying with regulatory agencies. This week, we examine a specific court case involving the accountability of a pharmacist-in-charge.
In Sternberg vs. California State Board of Pharmacy, an appellate court affirmed a decision by a lower court supporting the California State Board of Pharmacy (Board) who subjected the pharmacist license of the plaintiff to disciplinary action following the discovery of an employee’s widespread theft of a dangerous drug from the pharmacy Sternberg supervised as the pharmacist-in-charge. During a two-year period while Sternberg supervised a Target pharmacy, Imelda Hurtado, a pharmacy technician, stole at least 216,630 tablets of Norco from the pharmacy. Sternberg was subject to licensing discipline for the theft. Hurtado accomplished this theft as follows: She would place orders for up to 3,000 tablets (six bottles with 500 tablets per bottle) to be delivered to the pharmacy on a day she was scheduled to work. She did this approximately 85 times, as often as three times a week. When orders arrived, she would take the delivery to a work station farthest away from the pharmacist’s station. She would then remove the six bottles, hide them in the store room, and destroy the packing invoice. When the pharmacist on duty took a lunch break, she would go to the store room, put three bottles in her purse, and take them out to her car. Later in the day, when the pharmacist was on a break, she would take the other three bottles to her car in the same manner. Her theft was discovered when Sternberg found a bottle of Norco in the store room. The Target pharmacy normally did not sell Norco, so Sternberg notified Target management and Target initiated a loss prevention investigation. Hurtado was eventually caught on surveillance and arrested with 3,000 stolen Norco tablets. Based on this incident, the Board filed an accusation against Sternberg (as well as Target, which was resolved) alleging six causes for discipline, including but not limited to: violation of specific Business Professions Code for failure to maintain a complete and accurate record for all controlled substances; failing to maintain records of acquisition and disposition for three years; for allowing Hurtado, a nonpharmacist, to order and sign for three deliveries of the Norco; for failing to properly supervise Hurtado and allowing her to steal the Norco; for failing to secure and maintain the facilities, space, fixtures, and equipment from theft; and for failing to provide effective controls to prevent the theft of the Norco and maintain records for the drug. Sternberg timely filed a notice of defense, requesting a hearing on the six grounds. After a hearing, an administrative law judge issued a proposed decision finding Sternberg liable on all but the fifth ground (secure and maintain facilities from theft) and proposing to publicly reprove him. The Board rejected that decision and instead found Sternberg liable on all six grounds, revoking his pharmacist’s license but staying the revocation and placing his license on probation for three years with specific conditions. In its decision, the Board considered the scope of the theft “staggering,” particularly considering the pharmacy did not ordinarily sell Norco tablets and there were no Norco sales at all during a six-month period when Hurtado was not employed at the pharmacy. The Board further found Sternberg did not require the pharmacy to close while the pharmacist on duty went to lunch or implement other security measures to ensure adequate supervision of the pharmacy. According to the Board, had Sternberg properly supervised staff and conducted random checks of the containers that Sternberg was signing for, the thefts may have been discovered much sooner. The Board’s expert witness, who was also a pharmacist and whom the Board described as having “specialized knowledge and experience in this area,” stated that the pharmacist-in-charge’s legal duties included “overseeing the daily operations of the pharmacy and being the person responsible for their compliance with pharmacy law.”
Pharmacy managers have significant responsibilities, ultimately including those who report to them, and this is much the case for the pharmacist-in-charge, a legally designated title. Pharmacy managers must maintain close control over operations. In addition, while it is nearly impossible to be absolutely perfect in the hiring process, this case for one makes a strong argument for taking care in hiring the right personnel.
Additional information about Human Resources Management and Compliance with Regulations and Regulatory Bodies can be found in Pharmacy Management: Essentials for All Practice Settings, 4e. If you or your institution subscribes to AccessPharmacy, use or create your MyAccess Profile to sign-in to Pharmacy Management: Essentials for All Practice Settings, 4e. If your institution does not provide access, ask your medical librarian about subscribing.
1Sternberg v. California State Board of Pharmacy (2015) 239 Cal.App.4th 1159 California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Eight, Case No. B255862. Available at: https://www.pharmacy.ca.gov/enforcement/fy1516/sternberg_lexis.pdf. Accessed on April 18, 2010.