A Maricopa County judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging a state regulatory board’s authority to punish an electrical engineer for practicing his trade without a license.
Superior Court Judge Connie Contes on Tuesday ruled that Greg Mills, an electrical engineer who owns a Chandler-based engineering consulting firm called Southwest Engineering Concepts, can’t sue the Board of Technical Registration, at least not yet.
Mills will appeal the decision.
Mills sued in December after the board, which regulates a number of professions, including engineers, sought to penalize him for practicing and promoting himself as an electrical engineer, despite not being licensed as one. The board sought to impose a $6,000 fine and asked Mills to sign a consent agreement admitting to breaking the law and agreeing not to do so again. Mills refused.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian, free-market legal advocacy organization that often opposes occupational licensing requirements, represents Mills in the lawsuit. The organization’s attorneys argue that the board unconstitutionally infringed on his right to make a living and his right to free speech.
Mills also argued that the statutes the board is enforcing against him are unconstitutionally vague. The lawsuit noted that one of the two engineers who evaluated Mills’ case for the board said he wasn’t qualified to determine whether the specific services Mills provided could only be performed by a licensed engineer, and recommended further evaluation by an electrical or mechanical engineer.
But Contes ruled that Mills couldn’t sue because he hadn’t yet exhausted the remedies available to him. Paul Avelar, an Institute for Justice attorney representing Mills, said that would require him to challenge the board’s decision in an official administrative hearing. Until the board’s decision is final, the court’s view is that Mills hasn’t suffered an injury that he can sue over, Avelar said.
“We agree that the board has not taken final administrative action as defined in the statutes, but it’s our argument that we don’t have to wait,” Avelar said.
The board was pleased with the judge’s decision, said Melissa Cornelius, its executive director.
“We feel that she followed the law while following administrative law precedent,” Cornelius said.
The case stems from a complaint that a former client filed against Mills in May. The client was upset that Mills increased his cost estimate for a project, which the lawsuit said was likely due to the client changing his specifications. The client said he didn’t realize Mills was unlicensed and asked the board to hold him “accountable for unlicensed work” and to order a full repayment of the more than $2,000 he’d paid to Southwest Engineering Concepts.
In October, the board found that Mills had illegally failed to register himself and his firm, that he had violated a law prohibiting people from practicing or offering to practice engineering without the proper licensing and registration, and that he falsely presented himself as a licensed professional by promoting himself as an engineer on his website.
Mills provides electrical and mechanical engineer services, primarily for medical devices, consumer electronics and aerospace components. He said he works on small-voltage devices that are comparable to cell phones, watches and pedometers.
Engineers who work for manufacturers and public service corporations are exempt from the licensing requirement, and Mills spent most of his career working for such companies in Arizona and Wisconsin, meaning he’s never needed a license. The Institute for Justice said 80 percent of engineers in the United States don’t need licenses. But that exemption no longer applies to him because he now owns and operates his own company.
To qualify for a license, a person must have at least eight years of experience in his or her field, up to five of which can be from their professional education. That experience must be under the supervision of a licensed engineer. But though he has more than 30 years of experience, that criterion would hinder Mills from getting a license because he has never worked directly under someone with an engineering license.