Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Court Rejects Claim Police Officer Was Forced to Retire
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the dismissal of a high-ranking Phoenix police officer’s suit claiming that he was forced to retire because of unfounded sexual harassment charges.
Bruce Knappenberger lacks a viable 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 claim because he could not allege facts showing that his retirement was the product of coercion or intolerable working conditions, Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote for the court.
Knappenberger joined the department in 1973 and rose to the rank of commander, but was stripped of his post at the Community and Patrol Services Bureau and was placed on administrative leave in the summer of 2004. He was told at the time that the department was investigating allegations that he had made sexually suggestive remarks to a female office and had also made unwelcome physical contact.
Following his retirement in December 2004, he sued the city in state court, alleging he was deprived of his liberty and property interests without due process of law. He claimed that the investigation into the sexual harassment charges was improperly handled, that he expected to be terminated as a result, and that he retired rather than await the outcome of termination proceedings because if he was fired, he and his wife—who had a history of breast cancer—would lose his lifetime medical benefits.
The city removed the action to federal court and moved for judgment on the pleadings, which U.S. District Judge John Sedwick granted. Sedwick ruled that under Ninth Circuit law, a claim of constructive discharge could not be established absent “intolerable or discriminatory working conditions,” which Knappenberger did not allege.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that Sedwick applied an erroneously narrow definition of constructive discharge.
Ikuta agreed in part, citing decisions in the Ninth Circuit and elsewhere holding that an employee who is coerced into retiring or resigning may be deemed to have been constructively discharged for purposes of a civil rights action, as under federal labor law.
Citing Kalvinskas v. California Institute of Technology (9th Cir. 1996) 96 F.3d 1305, in which the court held that a disabled employee who retired rather lose the disability benefits that constituted his entire income did not leave employment voluntarily, Ikuta wrote:
“But even under a coercion theory, Knappenberger’s complaint does not allege an involuntary retirement. It is the employee’s burden to come forward with sufficient evidence to demonstrate that ‘a reasonable person in [his] position would feel he had no choice but to retire....In evaluating such claims of coercion, we determine voluntariness by an objective standard, rather than by the employee’s purely subjective evaluation; reject cases in which the employee did have a choice, even if between comparatively unpleasant alternatives; and consider additional case-specific factors that cut against a finding of coercion, such as whether the employee was given an alternative to resignation or retirement, understood the choice, had a reasonable time in which to decide, or could select the timing of the retirement or resignation.”
Knappenberger, the judge noted, alleged only that he anticipated being terminated, not that the city had already decided to terminate him, had given him an ultimatum, or had attempted to dictate his retirement date.
Ikuta went on to say that the district judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the plaintiff’s motion to amend the complaint. Any such amendment would have been futile, the appellate jurist said, because there was no dispute that he retired rather than risk the loss of his lifetime medical benefits.
The case is Knappenberger v. City of Phoenix, 07-15774.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company