The principal question presented on this appeal is whether a stipulation entered into by a discharged civil service employee, stating that if his discharge was wrongful he was entitled to back salary for the period prior to the filing of the complaint, may be deemed a waiver by him of all wages to which he would have been entitled for the period subsequent to that date and until reinstatement or retirement. As will appear, we have concluded that no such waiver may be implied and hence that the judgment must be reversed.
On June 9, 1959, at the age of 66, George Fones was summarily dismissed from his job as janitor at the City of Ukiah municipal library by the librarian and the library's board of trustees. The city council ordered his reinstatement on the ground that he was a civil service employee and had not been accorded the procedural safeguards prescribed by the civil service ordinance. The library board refused to comply, and on October 21, 1959, the city filed a declaratory relief action seeking to assert the jurisdiction of its civil service system over the library's employees. The defendants were the librarian, the library board, and Fones, the latter being a defendant in name only.
On January 20, 1960, apparently in order to expedite the litigation, a lengthy stipulation was entered into between the city, the librarian, the library board and Fones. The stipulation declared, inter alia, that Fones' dismissal was not in compliance with the city's civil service ordinance, that Fones was "ready, able and willing" to perform the duties of the position, and that "if said GEORGE FONES has been wrongfully denied a Civil Service position as janitor at said Library he is entitled to salary from the date of dismissal to the date of the filing of this Complaint minus what he earned or might reasonable [sic] have earned during said period." (Italics added.)
The trial court first ruled that Fones was not a civil service employee of the city but served at the pleasure of the
The case then returned to the trial court for a determination of Fones' rights to back salary and to reinstatement. On the latter point the court found that Fones was not entitled to reinstatement because during the course of the litigation he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. On the salary issue, Fones argued that he was entitled to some $12,000 in arrearage for the three-and-a-half-year period from his wrongful dismissal until his attainment of retirement age. The court found, however, that because of the stipulation of January 20, 1960, Fones' recovery would be limited to $855.30, his salary for the four-month period between the date of dismissal and the filing of the city's complaint for declaratory relief, less appropriate offsets. In its memorandum opinion the trial court explained that "It would appear" from the terms of the stipulation that in signing it Fones "was giving up ... any claim to back salary he might have" for the period following the filing of the complaint. Judgment was entered accordingly.
Directly in point is Estate of Coffin (1937) 22 Cal.App.2d 469 [71 P.2d 295], involving the right of a widow to a family allowance. There, a written stipulation was filed at an early point in the administration of the deceased's estate, declaring that the widow shall receive a family allowance of $300 per month beginning on a certain day "and continuing at said rate for a period not to exceed ten months," unless final distribution first occurred. After expiration of the 10-month period, the widow sought and obtained a court order extending
In an opinion authored by Acting Presiding Justice Spence, the order extending the allowance was affirmed. The court reasoned, "It is well settled that the right to a family allowance is strongly favored in our law and that it will not be held to have been waived or relinquished except where the language relied upon clearly and explicitly manifests that intention. [Citations.] We find no such language in the stipulation above set forth. It clearly appears that the parties intended to stipulate for the payment of a family allowance `at said rate for a period not to exceed ten months,' but it is not at all clear that the parties intended that said stipulation should thereafter bind anyone either as to amount or as to time. If appellants intended that the stipulation should constitute a waiver by respondent of the right to any family allowance after the expiration of a period of ten months, there was at least uncertainty in the language employed to accomplish their purpose and `any uncertainty in the language of the agreement will be resolved in favor of the right.' [Citation.]" (Ibid.)
There can be no doubt that the right of a wage earner to accrued wages is at least as favored in our law as the right of a widow to a family allowance. And the reasoning of the court in Estate of Coffin applies even more forcefully to the stipulation now before us, in which there appear no such words of limitation as "not to exceed...." The city seeks to distinguish Coffin on the ground that the opinion does not disclose the "circumstances" surrounding the making of the stipulation in that case; but such an argument is in effect a restatement of the city's suggested explanation of the motives behind the present stipulation (ante, fn. 1), and does not render the instant stipulation any less ambiguous.
The city relies on Scott v. City of Los Angeles (1948) 85 Cal.App.2d 327 [193 P.2d 25], Gamble v. City of Sacramento (1941) 43 Cal.App.2d 200 [110 P.2d 530], and Huntsman v. State Harbor Comrs. (1936) 17 Cal.App.2d 749 [62 P.2d 771], but each is distinguishable on the same ground. In those cases the defendant municipalities or public entities had found it necessary, due to a severe drop in revenues
The judgment is reversed for a redetermination of the matter of George Fones' back salary in the light of the views herein expressed.
Traynor, C.J., McComb, J., Peters, J., Tobriner, J., Peek, J., and Burke, J., concurred.