July 11, 2018

Determining if a county is obligated to provide for the defense and indemnification a county officer named as a defendant in a lawsuit against the County


Determining if a county is obligated to provide for the defense and indemnification a county officer named as a defendant in a lawsuit against the County 
Dunn v County of Niagara, 2018 NY Slip Op 03271, Appellate Division, Fourth Department

Danny P. Dunn, Sr. and Anita L. Dunn sued the County of Niagara [County] and Russell Jackman [Jackman], then a coroner employed by the County, in "action sounding in negligent infliction of emotional distress."

In his answer, Jackman contended that the County was obligated to defend and indemnify him pursuant to Public Officers Law §18. The County objected but Supreme Court determined that the County must provide Jackman with a defense by an attorney of his choosing and must reimburse him for his legal costs incurred to the date of the order. The County appealed and the Appellate Division ruled that Supreme Court should have denied Jackman's motion.

The Appellate Division explained the County's duty to defend an employee "turns on whether [the employee was] acting within the scope of [his or her] employment," and whether the obligation to defend the employee "was formally adopted by a local governing body." In order to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law under Public Officers Law §18, the individual seeking indemnification must establish that §18 is applicable in his or her situation.

In this instance the court held that Supreme Court had erred in granting summary judgment to Jackman while still finding that there are issues of fact that bear on the applicability of Public Officers Law §18 to Jackman's claims.*

In any event, the Appellate Division said it agreed with the County that Supreme Court  should have applied County Law§501 in determining whether the County was obligated to defend Jackman.

Finding that the complaint against Jackman "created an inherent conflict between [Jackman] and the County over whether [Jackman's] actions occurred in the scope of his employment," the Appellate Division ruled that the County was absolved of its responsibility to defend Jackman. Accordingly, Jackman's retention of outside counsel was "at his own expense unless the provisions of [Public Officers Law §18] are applicable" in view of the fact that §501[2] of the County Lawprovides that:

 "Whenever the interests of the board of supervisors or the county are inconsistent with the interests of any officer paid his compensation from county funds, the county attorney shall represent the interests of the board of supervisors and the county. In such case the officer may employ an attorney-at-law at his own expense unless the provisions of section eighteen of the public officers law are applicable."

The existence of any such conflict, said the court, cannot be determined in the context of a defendant's motion for summary judgment.

* The Appellate Division noted that the claim that the County had adopted Public Officers Law §18 was raised for the first time in Jackman's reply papers and ruled that issue was not properly before it.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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