had no knowledge of an actual failure deriving from the complainant’s designs.
Although the members of the CPC confirmed that others
shared the accused member’s opinion of the complainant’s
professional competence, they did not believe that this fact
excused the official from the unprofessional nature of his actions. Even if the member believed in the truth of his criticisms and did not act out of malice, the committee members
concluded that disparaging remarks to the complainant’s clients were by no means an appropriate way to express his misgivings. Furthermore, by delaying action and creating other
difficulties for the complainant’s clients, the CPC viewed the
member’s behavior as a disservice both to his public office and
to the profession he represented.
Accordingly, the CPC members held that the member had violated canon 5 of the Code of Ethics but could
not reach agreement on any formal disciplinary action. Instead, the CPC sent the member an informal letter of caution pointing out that he had demonstrated poor judgment in his actions with regard to the complainant’s work.
The letter noted that, if in the future he observed that an
engineer’s work was inadequate or unsafe, the proper response would be to submit a “reasonable and documented
complaint” to the state entity charged with investigating
While this column has focused on the ethical implications
of the city official’s conduct, it is important to note that his
actions could have had significant legal implications as well.
If the complainant had been able to demonstrate that the official made a false statement of fact that caused harm to the
complainant’s reputation or business, the complainant might
have had grounds to recover monetary damages in a defamation lawsuit. The official’s status as a government employee
probably would have afforded him some level of legal immunity, but not if it was found that he acted outside the scope of
his employment or with an intentional or reckless disregard
for the facts. In any event, all professionals, regardless of employment status, should remember that thoughtless or illtempered statements about another’s competence, integrity,
or character may result not only in an ethics complaint but
also in protracted and potentially costly litigation.
Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s
hotline at (703) 295-6151 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6151. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on
how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from
case to case, that some details may have been
altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary
information contained in these case studies
is not to be construed as a precedent binding
upon the Society.
Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a
contributing editor to Civil Engineering.
NOVEMBER 2015 Civil Engineering 
PO Box 688
Franklin Lakes, NJ 07417-0688
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