Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services
Rogers, Chief Judge, and Ferren and Terry, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren
The Office of Appeals and Review (OAR) of the Department of Employment Services (DOES) reversed the decision of an Appeals Examiner, who had ruled that the intervenor-employee, Lindsey Siegfried, was ineligible for unemployment compensation because she had voluntarily left her employment. OAR concluded that, on this record, Siegfried's resignation was coerced and thus involuntary, and that she accordingly is entitled to unemployment benefits. The petitioner-employer, the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), asks us to review that ruling. We affirm.
Siegfried was employed by the Cincinnati, Ohio Chapter of the AIA until January 1989, when she joined the Washington Chapter of the AIA as Executive Vice President. Her employment agreement provided for a three-year term of office with guaranteed annual compensation of $52,500. The agreement also provided that she would not be discharged without "substantial and serious cause." *fn1 A few days before an Executive Committee meeting scheduled for August 2, 1989, Arnold Prima, President of the Washington Chapter, called Siegfried and asked her to plan to stay after the meeting. Siegfried testified that Prima gave no indication that anything was wrong or that she should be concerned. On August 1, Siegfried called the Secretary of the Washington Chapter, William Hooper, to ask what he could tell her about the meeting Prima had scheduled with her the next day. Siegfried remembered Hooper telling her that "there was some dissatisfaction and some anger" on both sides of the employment relationship and that "we need to talk some things over." *fn2
After the August 2 Executive Committee meeting, five of the Committee members met with Siegfried. Prima told her that "we have no choice but to ask for your resignation." Hooper then gave Siegfried a draft letter of resignation to which a positive letter of recommendation was attached. The resignation letter provided for an additional two months of salary and benefits upon termination of employment, as well as a "suitable positive employment reference." The letter also contained extensive waiver provisions absolving the AIA of legal liability attributable to Siegfried's leaving her job.
Siegfried testified before the Appeals Examiner that she was:
absolutely and totally in shock, I never expected any such thing, I had never been through anything like that before in my life. I was just in total shock, I just couldn't believe that these people that had recruited me there to do a three (3) year job and that I had signed a contract for [would fire me].
According to Hooper's testimony, Siegfried was "extremely upset" upon hearing the proposal and went into an adjacent kitchen. After approximately three to five minutes, Hooper followed her into the kitchen. Siegfried testified that Hooper told her at the time "that it was very important that sign this letter now" and that "if decided to fight them would never win and [she would] never forget those words." *fn3 After another five to ten minutes, Hooper led her back to the meeting room. *fn4 Siegfried, still in shock, agreed to sign the resignation letter if she could have a four-month continuation of her health insurance at AIA's expense. *fn5 Hooper wrote that provision into the letter. After Siegfried had signed the letter, several Executive Committee members offered to drive her home because of their concern for her state of mind.
Siegfried returned to work the next day, although the resignation letter did not require her to continue working. She then went on a ten-day business trip. Upon her return on August 22, she sent the Executive Committee a letter:
I have been reviewing the highly unusual circumstances surrounding our meeting of August 2, 1989. . . . Reluctantly, I have come to the Conclusion that you attempted to obtain my resignation under extreme duress and coercion. I, therefore, must inform you that I disavow that letter as a resignation or as an expression of any intent to resign, and further, that I consider that letter to be invalid as a waiver of any of my rights under our employment contract or under law.
On August 24, AIA counsel wrote to Siegfried, ordering her to "remove all personal effects and turn in your key . Your presence at the office is not desired and will not be permitted as of August 25, 1989." *fn6
Siegfried filed a claim for unemployment compensation on November 14, 1989. A Claims Examiner ruled that she was ineligible for benefits because her resignation had been "voluntary." See D.C. Code § 46-111 (a) (1990). An appeals hearing was held on January 19, 1990. On April 3, the Appeals Examiner ruled that Siegfried's separation was voluntary and without good cause connected with the work, and that, as a consequence, Siegfried was ineligible for benefits. OAR reversed that ruling on July 18. The petitioner-employer objected, and the OAR issued an amended final decision on August 29 specifically noting, in response to the employer's expressed concern, that OAR had considered the petitioner's post-hearing brief. OAR concluded that " careful review of the evidence and testimony of the parties at the appeals hearing ...