Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (No. MPA5-04) Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge
Before RUIZ, GLICKMAN and FISHER, Associate Judges.
This appeal concerns the way the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") undertook to remove three of its district commanders, appellees Winfred Stanley, Reginald Smith, and John Daniels. On the afternoon of February 13, 1998, each commander was called into the office of the Assistant Chief of Police and presented with a stark ultimatum. Stanley and Smith were told 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. 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."*fn1
Stanley, Smith and Daniels each retired under protest. They then petitioned the District of Columbia Office of Employee Appeals ("OEA") to review their removals, claiming that MPD had forced them to retire involuntarily and, thus, had constructively discharged them in violation of their rights to continued employment. Following a long-delayed evidentiary hearing,*fn2 OEA senior administrative judge Joseph Lim issued an Initial Decision in which he credited the three employees' accounts and found "there were indeed coercive elements" [Appellant's Appendix at 150] in their interviews with the Assistant Chief of Police. Nonetheless, the administrative judge reasoned, the employees had alternatives to retirement: they could have "dared management to fire them without affording them their statutorily-mandated due process rights," and Daniels could have accepted his demotion. Concluding that the retirements therefore were voluntary, Judge Lim dismissed the petitions for lack of jurisdiction.*fn3
Stanley, Smith and Daniels sought review of Judge Lim's Initial Decision in Superior Court. Judge Michael Rankin ruled that the administrative judge's findings of voluntariness were not supported by substantial evidence, and that appellees' retirements were involuntary as a matter of law. At Judge Rankin's invitation, the parties conferred and appellees then submitted a proposed order, which, among other things, directed OEA on remand to reinstate them to their former positions as commanders with corresponding back pay and benefits. MPD did not object to the remedial terms of the proposed order, including the reinstatement provisions, and Judge Rankin adopted it.
MPD has appealed Judge Rankin's decision to this court.*fn4 In doing so, MPD has changed its position in two significant respects. First, MPD now concedes that Stanley and Smith did not retire voluntarily, and defends only the OEA judge's finding that Daniels did so. Second, though MPD agrees that Stanley and Smith are entitled to be reinstated, it now asserts that they should not be reinstated as commanders, but only as captains (a lower rank with reduced pay and benefits).
Thus, two issues remain for our consideration. The first issue is whether Daniels's retirement was voluntary. We conclude that the administrative judge's finding of voluntariness is not supported by substantial evidence and is contrary to governing law.*fn5 The second issue is whether Stanley, Smith and Daniels should be returned to duty as commanders. We hold that MPD is foreclosed from challenging their reinstatement as commanders because it acquiesced to that relief in Superior Court.
In the administrative proceeding before Judge Lim, Daniels had the burden of proving that he retired involuntarily, because "a retirement request initiated by an employee is presumed to be a voluntary act."*fn6 "The fact that an employee is faced with an inherently unpleasant situation or that his choice is limited to two unpleasant alternatives" is not enough by itself to render the employee's choice involuntary.*fn7 The test, an objective one,*fn8 is whether, considering all the circumstances, the employee was prevented from exercising a reasonably "free and informed choice."*fn9 As a "general principle" in this context, an employee's decision to retire or resign is said to be voluntary "if the employee is free to choose, understands the transaction, is given a reasonable time to make his choice, and is permitted to set the effective date."*fn10 With meaningful freedom of choice as the touchstone, courts have recognized that an employee's retirement or resignation may be involuntary if it is induced by the employer's application of duress or coercion,*fn11 time pressure,*fn12 or the misrepresentation or withholding of material information.*fn13
The evidence presented to the OEA and credited by Judge Lim showed that Daniels's retirement came about as follows. On the afternoon of Friday, February 13, 1998, his day off, Daniels was summoned from home for an unscheduled meeting at 2:45 p.m. with the Assistant Chief of Police, Robert C. White.*fn14 White informed Daniels that Interim Chief of Police Proctor had decided to replace him as Sixth District Commander, effective immediately. Further, White stated, Daniels had until 4:00 p.m. that day to decide whether to retire from the police force, accept a demotion to an unspecified position, or else be fired.*fn15 White denied Daniels's request for more time to make his decision, and he refused to tell Daniels how his pay and benefits would be affected if he accepted a demotion instead of leaving the force. Daniels, whose tenure as commander was unblemished, left the brief meeting with White in a state of shock and humiliation. As the 4:00 p.m. deadline loomed, Daniels attempted to ascertain from the MPD payroll office whether his demotion would entail a reduction of his salary, but the office was closed for the day.
At 4:00 p.m., Daniels telephoned White and accepted the demotion. White said Daniels would be moved to a night supervisor's position as an inspector, and that he would be given further details on Tuesday, February 17, after the President's Day weekend.*fn16 Over the next several hours, Daniels tried to collect his thoughts. He learned that his replacement as Sixth District commander had been announced to the public late that afternoon. He worried about the unknown financial consequences of his demotion; in particular, whether it would entail a pay cut and jeopardize his pension. Daniels's fears regarding the status of his pension were heightened when he learned how Stanley and Smith had been ousted and he spoke with Smith on Friday evening. Smith warned him that if he were to be fired, he would lose all of his pension rights.*fn17 Like his fellow commanders, Daniels had been told by Chief Proctor's predecessor, former Chief of Police Soulsby, that the Control Board had given the Chief authority to fire them summarily and without cause. The interviews with Assistant Chief White appeared to confirm that assertion, which Daniels had no reason to doubt, but which MPD now concedes was erroneous.*fn18
On Saturday morning, after an anxious night, Daniels tried to contact Chief Proctor to get more information about his situation. He could not reach her. Feeling that he needed to secure his pension and benefits before it was too late, Daniels then telephoned White and said he would retire. Although the 4:00 p.m. Friday deadline had passed, White accepted Daniels's decision. Saturday afternoon, Daniels wrote up his retirement application, in which he complained how "the time constraint did not give me enough time to make an intelligent decision because I had not been considering retiring."*fn19 MPD nonetheless approved Daniels's retirement application expeditiously, waiving the usual sixty days' notice requirement for such requests. On March 5, 1998, not three weeks after his interview with White, Daniels wrote Chief Proctor a letter seeking to rescind his precipitous decision to retire.*fn20 She denied his plea.
MPD argues, and the administrative judge agreed, that Daniels's retirement was not coerced, but, rather, was voluntary as a matter of law, because he simply wanted to avoid a duty reassignment that the Chief of Police had the authority to make.*fn21 We believe that this argument fails to give due weight to other crucial elements of the legal equation. As a general matter, it is true, "the doctrine of coercive involuntariness . . . does not apply to a case in which an employee decides to resign or retire because he does not want to accept a new assignment, a transfer, or other measures that the agency is authorized to adopt, even if those measures make continuation in the job so unpleasant for the employee that he feels that he has no realistic option but to leave."*fn22 But Daniels met his burden of showing that his decision to retire was induced by other factors that, in combination, substantially undermined his freedom of choice -- namely, the extremely short time frame in which he was forced to elect between retirement and demotion (or, it appeared, termination); his inability to obtain information from MPD about the financial consequences of that election; and the daunting misrepresentation that the Chief of Police could fire him summarily at any time without cause or due process.*fn23 We grant that time pressure or deficient information may be present to a greater or lesser degree in many unquestionably voluntary retirement and resignation decisions. Nevertheless, in this case those handicaps were severe ones. The evidence is undisputed that MPD pressed Daniels to make a life-changing decision on the spur of the moment. The evidence also is undisputed that the urgency ...