Commanders Given ‘Stark Ultimatum’ Did Not Voluntarily Resign

On the afternoon of February 13, 1998, three district commanders in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, Winfred Stanley, Reginald Smith, and John Daniels, were called into the office of the assistant chief of police and were presented with what a court called a “stark ultimatum.” Stanley and Smith were told that their employment would be terminated immediately unless they retired that very day. Daniels was given the same choice unless he agreed within the hour to accept a vaguely described demotion. As the Court described it, “the assistant chief of police delivered this unwelcome and unexpected news at the behest of the new interim Chief of Police, Sonya Proctor, purportedly under authority granted by the ‘Control Board.’”

Stanley, Smith and Daniels each retired under protest. All three then petitioned the District of Columbia Office of Employee Appeals to review their removals, contending they had been constructively discharged. Eventually, the Department conceded that Stanley and Smith did not retire voluntarily, but continued to take the position that Daniels had done so. The matter wound up before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

The Court found that Daniels’ retirement was coerced. The Court recounted that the normal test for a coerced retirement is whether, considering all the circumstances, the employee was prevented from exercising a reasonably free and informed choice. The Court observed that an employee’s retirement or resignation may be involuntary if it is induced by the employer’s application of duress or coercion, time pressure, or the misrepresentation or withholding of material information.

While the Court found that the law allowed an employer to force an employee to make “hard choices,” it also concluded that “a decision made with blinders on based on misinformation or a lack of information cannot be binding as a matter of fundamental fairness and due process.” In short, the Court found that the Department “compelled Daniels to decide his fate in haste and ignorance. While the law permits an agency to put its employee to a hard choice between unpleasant alternatives, the law also requires that the choice be understood by the employee and be freely made. Considering the time pressure and the informational disability together, we cannot find sufficient evidence in the record to support the conclusion that Daniels retired voluntarily. On the contrary, he indisputably made his decision under duress, and we hold that it was involuntary as a matter of law.”

District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department v. Stanley, 942 A.2d 1172 (D.C. 2008).

This article appears in the May 2008 issue