A retired engineer offers free expert testimony to flood victims. Licensing officers threaten him with criminal charges. – Reason.com
Wayne Nutt is a retired engineer who worked for decades at DuPont’s chemical plant in Cape Fear, North Carolina. Since his retirement, he has frequently put his expertise to work with local neighborhood groups, testifying at public meetings on everything from stormwater drainage design for new developments to road safety plans.
This civic engagement has now made Nutt the target of the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Surveyors and Engineers, which has threatened him with potential criminal charges for testifying on engineering matters.
The board argues that Nutt’s pro bono testimony in a recent court case constitutes the unauthorized practice of engineering, a misdemeanor in North Carolina that can carry maximum penalties of a fine of $ 1,000 and $ 60. days in prison. Nutt is now suing the board in federal court, arguing that the First Amendment guarantees his right to talk about engineering.
“It’s intimidating and intentional,” says Nutt. Reason. The board of directors “has said quite clearly that only a licensed professional engineer can criticize or testify against a licensed engineer ‘s design and that it is not good for the public. It is protecting engineers, it is not. is not protecting the public. “
An irony of Nutt’s case is that in his 40-year career he was never required to obtain a state engineer license. By virtue of being employed by a manufacturer, he was entitled to an “industrial exemption” from North Carolina licensing laws.
However, this lack of a license hardly made him a less qualified engineer. His work for DuPont, and later DAK Americas, required him to become familiar with all manner of chemical processes as well as federal safety regulations.
“I did a lot of research and development, and I did a lot of project work. I got to know the whole process of research, development, design and construction of a chemical plant, ”he says.
Nutt’s retirement in 2013 meant that he was no longer entitled to this “industrial exemption”. He nevertheless retained both his technical knowledge and the passion to deploy it in areas that he considered to be of public interest.
His lawsuit notes that he gave his opinion in public testimony to a number of state agencies, from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to the US Army Corps of Engineers.
None of these pleas have caused problems for Nutt until this year. It was then that he agreed to testify for free in a lawsuit brought by his son Kyle, who represents homeowners alleging that the drainage system of a nearby subdivision was flooding their property.
In his testimony for the case, Nutt gave his opinion on the stormwater capacity and flow rate of the disputed drainage system. In testimony, the defendant’s attorneys disputed that Nutt was commenting on technical matters without having an engineering license and threatened to report him to the review committee.
In response, Kyle Nutt reached out to the board to ensure his father’s testimony did not meet the state’s definition of “practicing engineering.” Much to the shock of the two Nutts, an attorney for the board informed them in a two-page email that “the definition of engineering includes testimony if engineering education, training or experience is required to testify.” In order for the elder Nutt to testify, he had to have a professional engineering license.
The council followed up on that opinion with a letter to Nutt in May saying that because of his testimony in his son’s trial, he was under investigation for unauthorized practice of engineering.
This opens Nutt to the possibility of board fines, and potentially even jail time. It could also prevent her ability to testify at the next trial in her son’s trial.
So, last week, Nutt filed a federal complaint with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, alleging that the Review Board is violating his First Amendment rights by threatening to kill him. punish for mere speech.
“The Council’s position is that it is perfectly legal for Wayne Nutt to spend decades acquiring practical engineering expertise by designing pipes that are actually built… but that it would be illegal for him to simply express his opinions publicly on a pipe designed by someone else, ”the complaint read.
The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting the examining jury from enforcing its ban on unlicensed people from speaking or testifying on engineering matters.
“The state may be able to regulate what you can build, but that doesn’t mean it can regulate what you can say about what others have built,” says Robert McNamara, lawyer at the Institute for Justice (which helps represent Walnut).
McNamara says the review board’s investigation of Nutt is part of a larger model of licensing boards acting as if the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them.
The Institute for Justice has previously represented Oregon man Mats Järlström, who was fined for posing as an engineer by arguing that his neighborhood red light cameras were improperly programmed and resulted in unfair fines. Oregon regulators ultimately agreed to drop the fine. Järlström’s red light policy recommendations were ultimately adopted by the Institute for Transportation Engineers.
Last month, Reason reported the case of Charles Marohn, the Strong Towns nonprofit urban policy official, who is threatened with fines and other sanctions from the Minnesota Engineering Licensing Board for calling himself a engineer in speeches and in an author biography on his website while his engineering license was temporarily expired. Marohn is also suing his state’s board of directors for violating his First Amendment rights.
“Professional licensing boards are the new censors in America and they exercise their power with extraordinary energy,” says McNamara. “If the First Amendment doesn’t apply to licensing boards, a lot of people are going to be stripped of their right to speak.”
Nutt expresses a similar concern. “There is a lot of information and expertise right in the public and they are discouraged to stand up and talk about a development that could negatively impact their neighborhood,” he says.