Concerning the duty of a public employer to defend and indemnify its employees being sued for alleged violations of an individual’s civil rights
Schenectady PBA v City of Schenectady, [Not selected for publication in the Official Reports*]
Schenectady police officers were being sued in federal district court for alleged civil rights violations. Rebecca and Jessica DiSorbo were suing police officer Ronald Pederson; David Sampson was suing police officers Richard Barnett and Michael Siler.
Pederson, Barnett and Siler respectively asked the city to defend them in the federal actions and to indemnify them should they be held liable as provided by to Section 50-j(1) of the General Municipal Law [GML].
GML Section 50-j(1) provides that a municipality shall defend and indemnify a police officer if he or she is sued because of some act or omission “in the performance of his duties and within the scope of his employment.” GML Section 50-j(6) authorizes a municipality to provide for the reimbursement of “punitive damages” related to the officer’s “proper discharge of his duties and within the scope of his employment.”
The collective bargaining agreement between the PBA and the city sets out the procedural steps to be followed when a police officer submits his or her request for defense and indemnification pursuant to GML Sections 50-j(1) and 50-j(6).
The city’s corporation counsel interviewed Pederson and other witnesses and decided that “Pederson made material misrepresentations” concerning his conduct. As a result, the city rejected Pederson’s GML Section 50-j(1) application because of his “failure to cooperate in counsel’s investigation.”
The city declined to provide for the defense and indemnification of both Barnett and Siler after their personal attorney “refused to allow the officers to attend [indemnification interviews] absent an assurance ... that the attorney-client privilege would attach with the result that Counsel could not divulge the officers’ communications.” Counsel refused and the two officers failed to appear for their interview. This was deemed to be a “failure to cooperate.”
The PBA sued, seeking a court order directing the city to provide for the defense of the three officers in their respective lawsuits and to indemnify them if they are found liable for damages and attorney fees.
State Supreme Court Justice Vito C. Caruso decided that:
1. Under the terms of the Taylor Law agreement, willful misconduct within, as well as misconduct outside the scope of employment, would support the city’s rejection of a GML Section 50-j application.
2. Statements made by officers to the city’s attorney in the course of the “indemnification interview” are protected by the “attorney-client” privilege.
With respect to the applications submitted by Barnett and Siler, Justice Caruso directed the corporation counsel reconsider their applications taking into account “the distinction between defense and indemnification under GML Sections 50-j(1) and 50-j(6), and [to] set forth specific findings to support his conclusions as to both.”
The decision acknowledges that applying the “attorney-client privilege” could disqualify the corporation counsel from representing the city in a claim against both the officers and the city, but comments that any theoretical and practical difficulties are the result of the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement concerning the review of applications for defense and indemnification pursuant to GML Sections 50-j(1) and 50-j(6) negotiated by the parties.
As to Pederson, here the court found that although he appeared for the interview, the corporation counsel concluded that he had misrepresented the facts and thus “failed to cooperate.” However, the corporation counsel did not made any substantive determination as to whether Pederson was guilty of “willful misconduct ... within the scope of his employment.” Accordingly, rejecting Pederson’s application on the basis of “non-cooperation” was held to be arbitrary. The corporation counsel was directed to make a substantive determination concerning Pederson’s conduct based on his investigation and evaluation of the evidence.
* The decisions concerning the federal actions filed by Rebecca and Jessica DiSorbo, are posted on the Internet at:
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