Commanders Can Be Demoted Without Just Cause

Robin Hoey joined Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department in 1985. Over the next nineteen years, he was progressively promoted to the positions of lieutenant, captain, inspector, and, in 2004, to commander of the Department’s Sixth District.

On April 19, 2007, newly-appointed Chief of Police Cathy Lanier informed Hoey that she was returning him to the rank of captain and reassigning him to other duties. At no point has Chief Lanier suggested that Hoey’s work was inadequate; to the contrary, his most recent performance evaluations document that his work was highly regarded.

Commander Hilton Burton experienced the same thing. Burton joined the Department in 1990, attained the rank of inspector in 2000, and was promoted to commander in 2003. On January 22, 2008, Chief Lanier returned Mr. Burton to the rank of inspector, again without citing performance difficulties.

Hoey and Burton challenged their demotions, arguing that since they were “career service” employees, they could not be demoted without just cause. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals disagreed, and upheld the demotions.

The core of the commanders’ argument was that a District of Columbia code provision allowing the reversion of officers holding ranks above that of captain could not apply to career service employees “because it contradicts various municipal regulations that protect such employees from adverse actions without cause.” The Court rejected the argument, finding that the code “does not erase all of the career service protections of officers within the department. It eliminates a single right – the right not to be reduced in rank without cause – for a small set of high-ranking officers. Moreover, it specifies that no officer may be reduced, without cause, below the rank of captain. No other career service rights are affected.

“It should have been no surprise to the commanders that they could be returned to the rank of captain without cause. Regulations in place before either was promoted above the rank of Capt. stated that ‘assistant chiefs, commanders, and inspectors serve at the pleasure of the chief of police. As such they may be returned to their previous rank position as the chief of police may determine.’”

Burton v. Office of Employee Appeals, 2011 WL 5196697 (D.C. 2011).

The article appears in our January 2012 issue.