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November 8, 2016

Some factors that a public employer wishing to obtain the services of a retired public employee should consider

Some factors that a public employer wishing to obtain the services of a retired public employee should consider
Meehan v County of Suffolk, 2016 NY Slip Op 07163, Appellate Division, Second Department, [Roslyn I], consolidated with
Meehan v County of Suffolk, 2016 NY Slip Op 07164, Appellate Division, Second Department, [Roslyn II]

These two decisions address questions that resulted when an individual was engaged to perform certain services by a public entity following his of her retirement from that entity.

Roslyn I

Status of the individual – employee or independent contractor?

Roslyn Birnbaum, while driving a car owned by Harvey Birnbaum, was involved in an accident with a vehicle operated by Michelle Meehan in the course of performing certain duties on behalf of Suffolk County and Suffolk’s Child Protective Services [County]. Meehansued the County and the Birnbaums to recover damages, contending that the County was vicariously liable for Roslyn's negligence under the doctrine of “respondeat superior.*

Contending that Roslyn was an independent contractor rather than its employee,** Supreme Court dismissed Meehan’s complaint insofar as asserted against it and Meehan appealed.

In contrast to an entity being a respondeat superior, the Appellate Division said that the general rule with respect to “an independent contractor” performing services for an entity is that “an employer who hires an independent contractor is not liable for the independent contractor's negligent acts." The court then held that the County had demonstrated a prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by submitting evidence showing that Roslyn was an independent contractor.

Meehan had the burden of showing that Roslyn was an employee of the County rather than an independent contractor. The court said that Meehan failed to raise a triable issue of fact with respect to her claim that Roslyn was an employee of the County as the only evidence she offered “revealed only minimal or incidental control” over Roslyn by the County and this was insufficient to demonstrate that Roslyn was an employee of the County at the time of the accident.

Significantly, the Appellate Division said that “the fact that some of the duties Roslyn performed as an independent contractor were identical to those she had previously performed as the County employee prior to her retirement from its employ did not convert the relationship between the County and Roslyn into one of employer-employee.

Roslyn II

The Independent Contractor Agreement and insurance

After the accident had occurred, Roslyn and the County executed a "Consultant/Personal Services Contract" [Agreement] for the period January 1, 2010, through December 31, 2010 that included a provision requiring the County to provide insurance coverage for Roslyn.

After the County's motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint insofar as asserted against it was granted, the Birnbaums commenced a third-party action against the County for a judgment declaring that the County had breached a contractual obligation to procure insurance on behalf of Roslyn. The County asserted that since the consultant agreement was executed after the accident, they were not obligated to provide liability coverage for Roslyn. Ultimately Supreme Court directed that State Farm Insurance Company [State Farm], with which the Birnbaums had automobile and umbrella insurance policies, be joined.

The Appellate Division said that the County, in support of motion, had submitted the consultant agreement. The court said that the insurance procurement provision at issue is incomplete and ambiguous and that “the consultant agreement itself is ambiguous because it contains inconsistent language throughout.”

The court then explained that:

1. “[W]here two seemingly conflicting contract provisions reasonably can be reconciled, a court is required to do so and to give both effect";

2. “[T]he failure to execute the consultant agreement until after the accident does not constitute an "absolute bar" to Roslyn's third-party claims’ and  

Finding that the County’s submissions did not demonstrate, as a matter of law, that it did not breach the terms of the consultant agreement, the Appellate Division held that Supreme Court properly denied that branch of the County’s motion to dismiss the third-party complaint insofar as asserted by Roslyn.

Further, contrary to the Birnbaums' contentions, the Appellate Division ruled that Supreme Court did not err in directing the joinder of State Farm, as State Farm may be inequitably affected by a judgment on Roslyn's third-party claims against the County. In addition, the court noted that Supreme Court “providently exercised its discretion in directing the severance of Roslyn's third-party claims ‘to ensure that no mention of insurance coverage is made during the trial of the main action.’"

* The doctrine of respondeat superior provides that the employer or principal is legally responsible for the wrongful acts of an employee or agent if such acts occur within the scope of the employment or agency of the employee or agent.

** The decision is silent with respect to any consideration being given to Civil Service Law §150 and, or, Article 7 of the Retirement and Social Security Law, which address the suspension of pension and annuity of a retiree during public employment. 

The decision in Roslyn I is posted on the Internet at:

The decision in Roslyn II is posted on the Internet at:

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