Joseph Piccinini applied for and was offered the position of deputy chief with the California Emergency Management Agency, a State agency. Piccinini informed the State that he could start work on February 1, 2011. He completed all of the necessary documentation for the position, underwent a physical examination, received a new uniform, signed a two-year lease for a home near the jobsite, and resigned from his position as chief of the Central Calaveras Fire Department. On February 3, he was told to report to work on February 7. However, on the evening of February 4, the State notified Piccinini that, due to budget constraints, his position had been eliminated.
Piccinini then filed suit against the State for wrongful termination, breach of contract, and promissory estoppel. The State demurred, and the trial court sustained the demurrer on the ground that public employment is governed by statute, not contract. To the extent Piccinini premised his claims on misrepresentations by the State that the deputy chief position was available, the trial court reasoned that the State was immune from suit. When Piccinini failed to amend his complaint, the court dismissed the case. Piccinini appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed in part and affirmed in part.
Government Code section 19257 provides that any person who in good faith accepts employment contrary to the State civil service laws shall be paid any promised compensation or, if no compensation was promised, shall receive the actual value of any services rendered and expenses incurred in good faith, and shall have a claim against the appointing power. Government Code section 18500 provides that civil service tenure is subject to the appropriation of sufficient funds.
Piccinini alleged in his complaint that he accepted in good faith employment that was contrary to law (i.e., lacking sufficient funds). The Court of Appeal held that Piccinini's allegations fell squarely within the scope of Section 19257, and he should be allowed to proceed on a promissory estoppel cause of action as authorized by Section 19257. Promissory estoppel is an equitable theory of recovery. If a party makes a promise that one would reasonably expect to induce action, and the promise does in fact induce action to the detriment of the promisee, a court may enforce the promise or determine another remedy to avoid injustice.
The Attorney General argued that allowing Piccinini's promissory estoppel theory would contravene important state public policies. As a general matter, estoppel will not be applied against the government if doing so would nullify a rule of policy adopted for the public benefit or would expand the statutory or constitutional power of a government officer or employee. However, the Court held that the general rules against estoppel did not apply in this case, because Section 19257 expresses a legislative policy in favor of allowing someone who has accepted an offer of state employment in good faith to assert a cause of action.
The Court of Appeal also held, however, that the trial court properly sustained the State's demurrer to the breach of contract and wrongful termination claims. Piccinini could not claim breach of contract when public employment is governed by statute, not contract. Further, he could not allege wrongful termination when the offer of employment was revoked solely due to lack of funding.
Thus, the Court of Appeal reversed the court's dismissal of Piccinini's promissory estoppel claim and gave Piccinini 30 days to file an amended complaint.
Piccinini v. California Emergency Management Agency (2014) __ Cal.App.4th __ [2014 WL 2443867].