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June 20, 2010

Defending and indemnifying employees

Defending and indemnifying employees
Zimmer v Town of Brookhaven, 247 A.D.2d 109

When a public employee is sued in connection with his or her performance of, or his or her failure to perform, official duties, usually he or she is entitled to look to his or her employer to provided him or her with representation in the proceeding. The Zimmer case points out one situation in which the employer may lawfully refuse to provide such assistance to an employee otherwise eligible for such legal assistance or indemnify him or her if he or she is held liable for damages.

Donald Zimmer was indicted and tried in federal district court for allegedly interfering with commerce by threats or violence, in violation of the Hobbs Act [18 USC 1951], while serving as member of the town council, Town of Brookhaven.*

Zimmer was acquitted and asked the Town to reimburse him for the legal expenses he incurred in defending himself in this federal action. When the Town rejected his claim, Zimmer sued, contending that the Town was under a “prior” or “pre-existing” legal obligation to reimburse him.

The Town initially had provided, and paid for, an attorney to defend Zimmer in the federal action. When the attorney withdrew, because of a “conflict of interest,” Zimmer employed his own attorney, whom he paid to defend him. Zimmer said that “the Town indicated to [him] that his legal fees and expenses would be ‘taken care of’.”

The Appellate Division pointed out a number of critical elements that must be resolved when “a public employee looks to the public purse to be defended, compensated, indemnified, or reimbursed in connection with legal proceedings brought against that employee....”

1. The “long-standing and frequently-invoked constitutional prohibition against the use of public moneys for private purposes (New York State Constitution, Article VIII, Section 1);”

2. In “appropriate cases and under fixed criteria, an employer, including a governmental employer, should stand behind an employee who is sued for acts performed while in the course of a duty for that employer....”

3. The public employer’s obligation to defend or indemnify an employee is limited to claims that fall clearly within the particular statutory authorization.

4. The existence of a pre-existing, legislative basis for the employee’s claim for defending or indemnifying him or her in litigation.

The basic statutory provisions protecting employees who are sued in connection with the performance of their official duties are Sections 17 and 18 of the Public Officers Law.

Section 17 established criteria for the defense and indemnification of State officers and employees against claims arising out of their public employment or duties while Section 18(2)(a) allows a municipality to adopt a local law, rule, regulation, resolution or bylaw providing for the defense and indemnification of its officers and employees who are sued as a result of their official acts or omissions.

Brookhaven had adopted a local law, Local Law 27, which provided for the “defense of the employee in any civil action or proceeding, state or federal, arising out of any alleged act or omission which occurred or allegedly occurred while the employee was acting within the scope of his public employment or duties.”

In its defense, the Town pointed out that while Local Law 27 provides authorization for the Town to defend and indemnify an officer or employee in civil cases, Zimmer was indicted on criminal charges.

In rebuttal, Zimmer contended that in the Security and Law Enforcement Employees case, (96 AD2d 976, affirmed 61 NY2d 965), the court allowed a public employer to compensate an employee for legal expenses in defense of criminal charges, even in the absence of a pre-existing legislative enactment.

The Appellate Division, said that Zimmer’s reliance on the Security Employees decision was misplaced because reimbursement for the expenses incurred in defending an employee in a criminal action in that case was based on a provision in a “pre-existing collective bargaining agreement, which expressly authorized it”.

In Zimmer’s situation, said the court, “there is no statute, ordinance, resolution, or anything approaching the formalities of a negotiated, pre-existing agreement of the kind” that would allow it to hold that the Town had to defend or indemnify Zimmer.

Further, the court ruled, even it were to credit Zimmer’s allegation that a town official or officials gave him assurances that the expenses would “be taken care of,” (1) no implied-in-fact contract was created under the circumstances present in Zimmer’s situation and (2) “[m]ore importantly ... no official had the authority to bind the Town or, by words or conduct, to enter into a contract to reimburse Zimmer.” Affirming the ruling by the Supreme Court, the Appellate Division dismissed Zimmer’s appeal.

Representation of an employee by a private attorney may become an issue in other situations as well.

In Foody v Rockland County, 253 A.D.2d 879, the Appellate Division, Second Department, considered whether John Foody, a Rockland County employee, was entitled to be represented by his own attorney when he and the county were named as defendants in a lawsuit.

Chapter 45 of the Laws of Rockland County provided for the defense and indemnification of municipal employees “who have been jointly sued with the County.” Foody wanted to substitute his county-selected attorney with another of his own choice and have the county pay his attorney’s “reasonable legal fees....”

One justification claimed for providing private representation in such cases is a potential, or actual, conflict of interest were the municipality’s attorney to represent both the municipality and the municipality’s employee.

The Appellate Division pointed out that Chapter 45 vests in the County Attorney the authority to decide whether a conflict of interest exists such that the employee is entitled to independent representation to be paid for out of County funds.”

But, said the court, even if the County Attorney determines that such a conflict exists, Section 45 authorizes the County Executive, not the employee, to select the employee’s private attorney. In other words, the employee does not have the right to designate his or her own attorney in such situations.

* The Hobbs Act (18 U.S.C. § 1951) prohibits actual or attempted robbery or extortion affecting interstate or foreign commerce.

The text of the decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://nypublicpersonnellawarchives.blogspot.com/2008/01/defending-and-indemnifying-employees.html

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New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor NYPPL and, or, its staff and contributors are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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