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Reviewing and Sealing Documents Prepared by a Deceased Engineer

Aug 1, 2007


A professional engineer supervising the preparation of construction plans for a wastewater treatment facility dies unexpectedly as the plans are nearing completion. The engineering firm has one other professional engineer on staff; however, she has had no prior involvement in the project. She contacts the ASCE ethics hotline to ask whether she may review the plans developed under her late colleague's supervision and apply her seal to them.


Is it ethical for a professional engineer who has not prepared or supervised the preparation of construction design plans to place his or her seal on them after a careful review?


The guidelines to practice in ASCE's Code of Ethics contain two references to sealing documents. Paragraph (b) in the guidelines for canon 1 reads as follows: "Engineers shall approve or seal only those design documents, reviewed or prepared by them, which are determined to be safe for public health and welfare in conformity with accepted engineering standards." And paragraph (c) in the guidelines for canon 2 has this to say: "Engineers shall not affix their signatures or seals to any engineering plan or document dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence by virtue of education or experience or to any such plan or document not reviewed or prepared under their supervisory control." These statements reflect the dual purpose of the professional engineer's seal, namely, to confirm that a competent professional has taken responsibility for the document and to certify that the work has been carried out with the utmost concern for the public welfare.

Both paragraphs cited above include the phrase "reviewed or prepared," meaning that an engineer can seal work that he or she did not perform as long as he or she is qualified to review the work and has taken the steps necessary to confirm that the plans satisfy all applicable engineering and safety standards. Therefore, under the Code of Ethics, a professional engineer's decision to seal, after a thorough review, documents prepared outside his or her supervisory control would not constitute an ethics violation. 

However, the question whether a professional engineer may sign documents prepared by another does not end with ASCE's Code of Ethics. Professional engineers are also subject to state regulations and to codes of conduct developed by state licensing boards, and many states impose tighter restrictions on an engineer's ability to seal documents that have not been prepared under that engineer's supervision.

In May 2005 this column reported a case where an engineer reviewed and sealed plans produced by another engineer. Although ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) found that the engineer had not violated the Code of Ethics, the engineer was disciplined by his state licensing board, whose rules of conduct barred engineers from sealing documents when they had not personally prepared the documents or supervised their preparation.

In fact, the rules of nearly every state licensing board in the United States stipulate that engineering plans are to be sealed only by the engineer who prepared the plans or had direct personal supervision over the individuals who prepared them. However, recognizing that situations can arise where the responsible engineer is unable to seal completed or nearly completed plans, many states define requirements that, if met, allow an engineer to place his or her seal on a predecessor's documents.

In Virginia and Rhode Island, for example, in cases where the responsible engineer is unable to seal engineering documents, another professional engineer may seal them after proper review and verification. To quote the Rhode Island statute, there must be a "thorough review and verification that the work has been accomplished to the same extent that would have been exercised if the work had been done under the direct control and personal supervision of the professional affixing the professional seal." In New York and Connecticut, an engineer who wants to seal plans prepared by another must prepare and retain for six years a comprehensive written evaluation of the documents, "including but not limited to drawings, specifications, reports, design calculations, and references to applicable codes and standards." And in South Dakota, a newly enacted statute permits a second engineer to seal another's work only if the successor again performs all the professional services, including the preparation of a "complete design file, with work or design criteria, calculations, code research, and any necessary and appropriate changes." 

The rules on sealing documents vary significantly from state to state, and many contain subjective terms, for example, "sufficient" and "familiar," which have been left for the state licensing board to interpret. Given this uncertainty-and the possibility of disciplinary action for failure to comply with state rules on the use of seals-it is wisest for any engineer in this situation to disclose the facts to his or her state licensing board and to seek advice as to what actions are allowed under the laws of the particular state.

Accordingly, the ASCE ethics hotline staff advised the member that while reviewing and sealing plans prepared by another engineer for the wastewater treatment facility would not violate ASCE's Code of Ethics, she should contact her state licensing board for the final word on whether it was permissible for her to do so. 

For individuals seeking more information on state rules governing sealed documents, the Web site of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying contains links to the licensing boards of all U.S. states and territories:

© ASCE, ASCE News, August, 2007

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.