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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Seeking indemnification for legal expenses pursuant to Public Officers Law §18

Seeking indemnification for legal expenses pursuant to Public Officers Law §18
Paul W. Mossman as Commissioner of Social Services of Columbia County v County of Columbia (Two Proceeding), 2015 NY Slip Op 03005, Appellate Division, Third Department

In Proceeding No. 1 pursuant to CPLR Article 78 Commissioner Mossman [Mossman], among other things, sought a court order annulling the County’s determination that he was not entitled to a legal defense pursuant to Public Officers Law §18 “in connection with a certain grand jury proceeding.”

In Proceeding No. 2 pursuant to CPLR Article 78 Mossman sought a court order directing the County “to provide such a legal defense in connection with a subsequent grand jury proceeding.”

In March 2013 the Columbia County District Attorney issued a subpoena demanding that Mossman appear before a grand jury with various documents related to the official actions of Columbia County Department of Social Services employees. Mossman thereafter sought to retain outside counsel and requested that the County indemnify him pursuant to Public Officers Law §18 and Columbia County Code §36-1. The County denied Mossman’s request stating that those provisions of law did not apply to "potential criminal matters."

Mossman challenged the County’s decision and a Supreme Court granted his petition in a December 2013 judgment.

In March 2014 the Columbia County District Attorney served a similar subpoena on Mossman and the County again denied Mossman request to be indemnified for his legal expenses. Mossman initiated an second CPLR Article 78 proceeding and Supreme Court, relying upon its rationale in Proceeding No. 1, issued a judgment in April 2014 granting Mossman‘s petition.

The County appealed both the December 2013 and April 2014 Supreme Court judgments. The Appellate Division, however, affirmed both Supreme Court rulings, explaining:

1. The County had adopted Public Officers Law §18, and was thus obliged to "provide for the defense of [an] 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 [or her] public employment or duties," citing Public Officers Law §18[3][a]). 

2.      As “a conflict of interest” prevented the Columbia County Attorney from representing Mossman, Mossman was entitled to representation "by private counsel of his choice."
3.      Mossman satisfied the notice requirements of Public Officers Law §18 and is an employee of the County, and the subpoenas clearly stem from actions undertaken in the course of his public duties.

The Appellate Division rejected the County’s argument that the grand jury proceeding did not constitute a "civil action or proceeding" for the purposes of Public Officers Law §18 as the County “failed to demonstrate" what was the objective of the grand jury proceeding and admitted that the District Attorney had not made his "intentions [known] in relation to the potential for criminal charges." The court also noted that although grand juries may indict a person for a criminal offense “they are also empowered to make presentments as to noncriminal misconduct or neglect by public officers and employees."*

The court said that because there was no indication that criminal charges are actually being contemplated, Supreme Court properly "reject[ed] [the County’s] claim that because the [g]rand [j]ury proceeding[s] could have resulted in criminal charges against [Mossman ], the proceeding[s] [were] not civil in nature" and that any other holding “would defeat the clear intent of the statute, which insulates public employees from litigation expenses arising out of their employment."**

* The Appellate Division said that the subpoenas served on Mossman sought information regarding "all of [Mossman] employees and subordinates." Contrary to the County’s contention, the Appellate Division said that the statutory power to report on the noncriminal misconduct of any public servant bears no connection to the separate constitutional right of a grand jury to investigate and indict public officers.

** Public Officers Law §19.2, which applies to employees of the State as the employer, provides, in pertinent part, "it shall be the duty of the   state to pay reasonable attorneys' fees and litigation expenses incurred by or on behalf of an employee in his  or  her  defense  of  a  criminal   proceeding in  a  state  or  federal court arising out of any act which   occurred while such employee was acting within the scope of  his  public   employment  or  duties  upon  his acquittal or upon the dismissal of the criminal charges against him or reasonable attorneys' fees  incurred  in   connection  with an appearance before a grand jury which returns no true   bill against the employee where such appearance was required as a result of any act which occurred while such  employee  was  acting within  the   scope  of  his public employment or duties unless such appearance occurs   in the normal course  of  the  public employment  or  duties  of  such   employee.

The decision is posted on the Internet at: 

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