Thursday, January 30, 2014

Defending and indemnifying an educator sued in a civil action arising out of the exercise of his or her duties

Defending and indemnifying an educator sued in a civil action arising out of the exercise of his or her duties
2013 NY Slip Op 52173(U), Supreme Court, Cortland County [Not selected for publication in the Official Reports]

A lawsuit [Civil Action] was filed on behalf of a female student alleging five causes of the action: (1) a negligent supervision claim against the school district; (2) an assault claim against a teacher [Teacher]; (3) a battery claim against Teacher; (4) an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against Teacher; and (5) a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim against Teacher.

Upon being served with the summons and complaint, Teacher, citing Education Law §3028*, asked the school district provide him with a defense and indemnification in the Civil Action. The school district notified Teacher that it would provide, through its liability insurer, a defense of the underlying action and indemnification for any damages that may be awarded against Teacher on the fifth cause of action — for negligent infliction of emotional distress — but that it would not provide indemnification for any damages that may be awarded for the intentional torts alleged in the second, third, or fourth causes of action.

In response to the school district's refusal to provide him with complete indemnification, Teacher filed an Article 78 petition seeking a court order directing the school district to so provide such indemnification. The school district moved, without answering Teacher’s petition, for summary judgment and dismissal of his petition as a matter of law.

Education Law §3811.1, in pertinent part, provides that in the event a superintendent, principal, member of the teaching or supervisory staff, member of a committee on special education or subcommittee thereof, surrogate parent as defined in the regulations of the commissioner of education, or any trustee or member of the board of education of a school district or non-instructional employee of any school district other than the city school district of the city of New York or any board of cooperative educational services shall defend any action or proceeding, other than a criminal prosecution or an action or proceeding brought against him by a school district or board of cooperative educational services hereafter brought against him, including proceedings before the commissioner of education, arising out of the exercise of his powers or the performance of his duties under this chapter,** all his reasonable costs and expenses, as well as all costs and damages adjudged against him … [emphasis supplied].

Addressing the school district’ motion to dismiss Teacher's claim for full indemnification in the Civil Action, Supreme Court said that it may properly consider the merits of Teacher’s petition “because the dispositive facts are undisputed and the parties had ample opportunity to present their respective arguments”, noting that such a motion to dismiss must be granted where the petition and supporting papers fail to allege facts sufficient to support the alleged claim.

The Education Law §3811(1), said the court, requires the school district defend Teacher in a civil actions arising out of the exercise of his duties and indemnify him from any resulting damages. The issue of whether the alleged conduct on which the Civil Action is based comes within the provisions of Education Law §3811(1) as having been within the discharge of Teacher's professional duties as an employee of the school district is for school district to decide in the first instance. The school district’s determination in this regard may be set aside only if it lacks a factual basis and, therefore, is arbitrary and capricious.

An employee's actions are within the scope of his or her employment only if the purpose of such acts is to further the employer's interest, or to carry out the duties owed to the employer. Here the school district concluded that Teacher's actions with respect to the fifth cause of action set out in the Civil Action was within the scope of his employment and, therefore, offered a defense of the entire Civil Action but limited its duty to indemnify Teacher with respect to the fifth cause of action.

In this regard, the court said that the fact that some of the alleged conduct may have arisen in Teacher's performance of his duties does not require that he be indemnified for damages based on conduct that exceeds the scope of his employment. With respect to the allegations on which the second, third and fourth causes of action are based the school district concluded that such conduct is not within the scope of Teacher's employment.

With respect to Causes of Actions 2, 3 and 5, Supreme Court held that there was no basis for concluding that Teacher's conduct, allegedly constituting an intentional tort, amounted to acting in good faith or that such conduct was merely the result of Teacher’s inartfully trying to fulfill his duties. Similarly, said the court, no reasonable argument may be made that such conduct either furthers the school district's legitimate interests or was required for Teacher to carry out his duties.

Finding that the school district had a rational basis for concluding that the conduct alleged in Causes of Action 2, 3 and 4 were not performed within the scope of Teacher's employment, the court ruled that the school district has no duty to indemnify Teacher with respect to those three causes of action. 

Supreme Court then “ordered that [the school district] provide Teacher with a defense of the underlying action and indemnity for damages arising from the fifth cause of action asserted therein” and dismissed the remainder of Teacher’s petition with prejudice.

* Teacher’s notice of petition and relief sought was deemed amended to conform to the proof (seeCPLR 3025[c]), by changing "3028" to "3811" on the representation that citing 3028 was a scrivener’s error.

** The court noted that the phrase utilized in Education Law § 3811 — "arising out of the exercise of his powers or the performance of his duties under this chapter" — is equivalent to the term "scope of employment," "scope of employment," "discharge of duties," "performance of duties," and similar phrases are interchangeable citing Segal-Cotler v Board of Education, 20 NY3d 671.

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