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The Proper Use of the PE Seal

May 1, 2015


Situation

A client retains an architecture and engineering firm to design and supervise construction of a church building that features a geodesic dome structure. While the project is under construction, a dispute between the client and the firm arises over payment of the latter's fees. When the parties are unable to reach a prompt resolution, the firm resigns from the project, and its principal informs the county building department that the firm is no longer associated with the church project. The building department, in turn, revokes the client's construction permit and advises the client that the project cannot continue without an architect or engineer overseeing the project

Eager to avoid further delays, the client contacts another design professional-a civil engineer and ASCE member. The client assures the engineer that its contract dispute with the architecture and engineering firm is close to a resolution but explains that it has no desire to work with that firm in the future and thus is looking to retain another engineer to see the construction through to completion. The engineer agrees to take the job and discusses the project with the county building department

The engineer advises the department that even though he was not responsible for the original design, he is willing to supervise the project and ensure that it is built according to the previously approved plans. The department points out that because the previous permit had been revoked, the owner will have to submit a new permit application, along with signed and sealed plans. The engineer removes the seal and title block from the original plans, replaces them with his own signature and stamp, and submits them with the new permit application. However, he includes a written statement that he takes no credit or responsibility for the plans and is signing them "only to affirm that he will oversee construction.

The permit is approved and construction resumes, but a member of the architecture and engineering firm learns of the engineer's actions and reports the engineer to the state licensing board. The board files an administrative complaint against the engineer for violating state laws regarding the proper use of the P.E. seal. It offers the engineer an opportunity to settle the complaint and waive his right to a formal hearing, and the engineer accepts. As a result of the settlement, he is ordered to pay a $1,500 fine, but no further action is taken against his license.
Notice of the disciplinary action appears in the state board's quarterly newsletter, and an ASCE member forwards a copy of the notice to ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC).


Question

Did the member's actions in signing and sealing the plans violate ASCE's Code of Ethics?
 

Discussion

More than just a simple ritual or formality, affixing the P.E. seal is perhaps the most important statement that can be made by a practicing engineer. When used on a set of engineering plans or documents, the P.E. seal serves as a signal to clients, regulators, and the public at large that the documents meet the exacting standards of a professional who not only is qualified by education and experience to evaluate the contents but also is ethically bound to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

Inherent in the message carried by a P.E. seal is the element of personal knowledge. With so much trust placed in an engineer's assessment of professional documents, it is essential to know that the engineer is certifying the documents not on the basis of blind trust or an unsubstantiated belief in another's work but because he or she has had sufficient personal involvement with the documents to know whether or not they meet the standards of the profession. Accordingly, the requirement of personal involvement looms large both in state licensing laws governing the use of an engineer's seal and in the codes of conduct enforced by ASCE and other professional societies

Category (c) in the guidelines to practice for canon 2 of ASCE's Code of Ethics applies here: "Engineers shall not affix their signatures or seals to any engineering plan or document...not reviewed or prepared under their supervisory control." Also germane is category (b) in the guidelines to practice for canon 1, which adds the following: "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.

While the engineer's use of his seal in this case was not an attempt to mislead or deceive the recipients as to the extent of his personal involvement, it is nevertheless clear that he used his seal on plans that were not "reviewed or prepared" under his "supervisory control." Furthermore, despite his attempt to disclaim responsibility for the safety of the design, his use of his seal in submitting plans to the public agency represented personal acceptance of that very responsibility. At that point he had the ethical obligation to verify through his own review and calculations that the documents were "safe for public health and welfare in conformity with accepted engineering standards.

When contacted by the CPC, the member offered little in the way of defense. He observed only that he had made a "stupid and ignorant mistake" and explained that as soon as he recognized the nature of his violation, he accepted the board's proposed settlement in an effort to resolve the matter swiftly. He expressed the hope that he could reach an equally prompt resolution of the matter with the CPC. The members of the CPC felt that the member had clearly learned his lesson with regard to the appropriate use of his seal. However, they saw the offense as being serious enough to warrant formal action. Accordingly, the CPC found that the member had violated canons 1 and 2 of the Code of Ethics, and it recommended that ASCE's Executive Committee send him a formal letter of admonition.

Although cases involving misuse of an engineer's seal are not frequently reported to ASCE, they represent one of the most common cases adjudicated by state licensing boards. Moreover, the use of a professional seal is one area in which the law's requirements are often higher than those imposed by professional codes of conduct. While ASCE's canons may require only a thorough review of another's work, many state statutes are considerably more exacting. 

For example, under Oklahoma law, an engineer seeking to seal another's work "shall perform or have responsible charge over all professional engineering or land surveying services to include development of a complete design file including work or design criteria, calculations, code research, field notes, and any necessary and appropriate changes to the work." And in Florida, a successor "must be able to document and produce upon request evidence that he has in fact re-created all the work done by the original professional engineer. In other words, calculations, site visits, research and the like must be documented and producible upon demand.... Plans need not be redrawn by the successor professional engineer; however, justification for such action must be available through well kept and complete documentation on the part of the successor professional engineer as to his having rethought and reworked the entire design process.

In view of such demanding requirements and the prevalence of enforcement actions against licensees who step over the regulatory line, it is crucial for any member contemplating the use of his or her seal on another professional's work to ensure that his or her actions pass muster not only ethically but also under the laws of the applicable jurisdiction.



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) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. 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.

© ASCE,  Civil Engineering , May 2015