August 20, 2020

Defending and indemnifying employees of the City of New York being sued in a civil action

§50-k(3) New York State's General Municipal Law provides that New York City must, if certain conditions are satisfied, defend and, if necessary, indemnify, an employee being sued in a civil action related to the employee's conduct performed in compliance with the rules and regulations of the employee’s agency at the time the plaintiff was injured, so long as the injury to the plaintiff did not result from the employee’s intentional wrongdoing or recklessness.*

Two New York City police officers [jointly Defendants] had arrested an individual [Accused] and charged him with disorderly conduct, harassment, obstruction of governmental administration, and resisting arrest. After obtaining video footage of the incident, prosecutors dismissed all charges.

The Accused then filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging false arrest, malicious prosecution, the use of excessive force, denial of the right to a fair trial, a failure of a police officer to intervene in the course of the incident, and First Amendment violations, as well as malicious prosecution in violation of New York state law, against the City of New York [City], the Defendants, and another New York City police officer. A federal district court jury found for the Accused and Defendants appealed.

One of issues raised by Defendants in the district court was the City’s decision not to provide for their defense and indemnification under color of General Municipal Law §50-k(3). The Circuit Court held that "the district court did not err" in denying Defendants’ request for an evidentiary hearing" addressing the City's decision not to provide for Defendants' defense and indemnification.

The Circuit Court held that whether the employee's act or omission was in violation of an agency rule, or was within the employee’s scope of employment was a factual determination to be made in the first instance by the City's Corporation Counsel, whose determinations may be set aside only if they are not supported by the evidence or are in some other sense ‘arbitrary and capricious.” Further, the Circuit Court noted that the City is not required to indemnify a defendant for “intentional wrongdoing or recklessness.

The Circuit Court opined that the fact that Defendants may have certain employment rights meriting a hearing prior to termination** "says nothing of their right to indemnification after trial." The Circuit Court's decision also observed that "Defendants had a full and fair opportunity to present their defense in court, yet failed to convincingly do so." 

In addition, said the court, in any event, the City "maintains discretion to indemnify officers" and, in consideration of the substantial factual support for the City’s decision, "the district court did not err in denying Defendants’ request for an evidentiary hearing. In the words of the Circuit Court, "The City’s assessment of Defendants’ wrongdoing or recklessness was supported by the findings of the City's Civilian Complaint Review Board, the videotape of the incident, and the federal district court's jury’s findings of liability and awarding of punitive damages."

* See, also, Public Officers Law §17 [defense and indemnification of State officers and employees] and Public Officers Law §18 [defense and indemnification of officers and employees of public entities]. Public Officers Law §19.2(a) addresses the duty of the State, as the employer, to pay reasonable attorneys' fees incurred as the result of a State officer or employee appearing before a Grand Jury or in a criminal proceeding arising out of any act which occurred while such individual was acting within the scope of  his public employment or duties.

** Subdivision 5 of §50-k(3) provides that "[i]n the event that the act or omission upon which the court proceeding against the employee is based was or is also the basis of a disciplinary proceeding by the employee's agency against the employee, representation by the corporation counsel and indemnification by the city may be withheld (a) until such disciplinary proceeding has been resolved and (b) unless the resolution of the disciplinary proceeding exonerated the employee as to such act or omission."

The decision is posted on the Internet at: