Unlicensed "Life Coach" Loses Suit against
Nutrition Licensing Board
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Steve Cooksey, who fancies himself qualified to advise diabetics about nutrition, has failed in an attempt to prevent the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition from limiting his ability to give nutriiton advice. The suit was filed on his behalf by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit corporation purporting to "protect the constitutional rights of Americans." The lawsuit, filed in federal court, stated the following:
- Cooksey used a diet of fats, meats, fish, eggs, and fresh vegetables to lose 78 pounds, control his diabetes, and regain his health.
- After adopting a diet and exercise strategy that caused Cooksey to lose weight and bring his diabetes under control, Cooksey decided to share what he believed via the Internet and started a free Web site to share his beliefs about diabetes management.
- In addition to sharing advice by answering reader questions on his blog, Cooksey has provided advice in private e-mails and conversations, and (beginning in 2010) through a fee-based "life-coaching service" that he refers to as "Diabetes Support."
- In January 2012, his Diabetes Warrior site had approximately 12,000 unique visitors. That same month, a licensing board representative went through 19 pages of the site and indicated line-by line what he may and may not say. She also advised him to remove his "life coaching" service, which he did.
- The board's action as an infringement of Cooksey's First Amendment rights.
Cooksey's "support packages" were offered for $49 to $199 per month. The suit asks the court to void North Carolina's Dietetics/Nutrition Practice Act and its accompanying regulations as unconstitutional.
The Board members, of course, see the situation quite differently. Their response to plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction states:
Although Plaintiff Cooksey attempts to cast his Complaint as a First Amendment case challenging the Board‟s "censorship of ordinary advice on an age-old topic: What is the healthiest food to eat?"—the reality is far different. If Plaintiff was only interested in discussing his views on the healthiest foods to eat, this matter would not be before the Court. Plaintiff Cooksey, however, seeks a ruling that would invalidate the Dietetics/Nutrition Practice Act ("Act") and allow him, among other things, to individually counsel diabetics on the diet they should be consuming given their specific health condition. The Act was created to address that very situation—"to safeguard the public health, safety and welfare and to protect the public from being harmed by unqualified persons by providing for the licensure and regulation of persons engaged in the practice of dietetics/nutrition and by the establishment of educational standards for those persons" . . . .
The Act, and enforcement of the same by the Board, is necessary to prevent incompetent and unqualified practitioners from providing dietetic and nutritional services to the citizens of North Carolina. An injunction prohibiting the Board from enforcing the Act would jeopardize the health, safety and welfare of citizens of North Carolina and cannot be countenanced.
In October 2012, the court concluded that Cooksey lacked standing because he had failed to allege that he had suffered an injury traceable to the Board's conduct and that he had merely received informal guidance about what was legal.
For Additional Information
- Why "nutritionist" licensing is important
- N.C. Dietetic/Nutrition Practice Act guideline for unlicensed persons
- Licensing board's line-by-line analysis of Cooksey's Web site offering
- Complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief
- Defendants' memorandum of law in opposition to plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction
- Magistrate's denial of preliminary injunction
- Order affiiming the magistrate's decision and dismissing the suit
This article was revised on October 12, 2012.