Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Monsivaiz v. LA County Civil Svc Comm'n (Cal. Ct. App. - April 28, 2015)

I get the theory behind today's Court of Appeal opinion.  But I wonder if it's just.

Petitioner said that he was wrongfully fired from his civil service position, but he then died while his writ petition was pending in the superior court.  So the trial court dismissed his petition, on the theory that since petitioner was now dead, he couldn't be restored to his former position anyway, so it's all moot at this point.

Okay.  I get it.

But petitioner's got a claim for back wages.  Shouldn't he be allowed to recover those if, in fact, he was wrongfully fired from his job?

Justice Grimes says, nope, she shouldn't.  In a holding that may well be technically correct.  To overly simplify the argument, the theory is that since the relevant statutes only authorize writs by wrongfully discharged employees, but the petitioner here is no longer an employee since he's now dead, there's nothing a court can do.  Relief isn't authorized.

This theory is sound as far as it goes.  But, again, I wonder if it's just.  Or whether it's a relic of an outdated and inequitable era that we should strive to put behind us.

We used to abate all sorts of things under the common law.  You died and your lawsuit went away; tough luck for you.  But in the past century, most places (including California) gradually whittled away at this inequitable result.  There are still vestiges of this view in the modern era; for example, the rule that you can't recover for pain and suffering once you die.  But for the most part, the theory of abatement based upon death has been replaced by a superior regime.

The change wasn't sudden.  It transpired over a series of decades.  And it replaced a system that was consistent.  Coherent.  A unified whole.  That ancien regime made internal sense at the time, and was supported by well-reasoned and coherent authorities.

Just like the Court of Appeal's opinion here.

I would have liked to read Justice Grimes' take on that evolution.  Today's opinion doesn't talk at all about abatement in normal cases, much less its development over time.  It doesn't talk about the equity of the result obtained here or the downsides of its holding that a petitioner can be deprived of all relief -- including the back pay to which he's entitled -- based solely on the happenstance of his death.

California saw similar results in regular cases long ago, which motivated us to push against this system and ultimately change it.

I wonder whether the Court of Appeal thinks that a similar result should happen here.  Or whether it's happy with the equity of the result it has reached.