How are state workers protected from lawsuits?

After news first broke that Joseph Bruno was going to petition Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for reimbursements of “substantial” legal costs after criminal charges against him were dropped, and the Times Union’s outstanding James Odato could not get Schneiderman’s office to divulge how many public employees have been similarly reimbursed, we were more than a little curious.

What The New York World would go on to find is startling: the state has paid over $193 million over the last decade to public officers upon acquittal or dismissal of criminal charges or who’ve had civil suits brought against them. As most of the payouts were related to civil cases covered under Section 17 of New York State’s Public Officers Law (POL), here’s a quick explainer on how state workers get protected from lawsuits.

Hold on, the state pays for legal expenses when its employees get sued?
If you’re a former or current state employee sued for actions you took in the course of your work, you can get the state to insure you against any legal costs under the POL.

Here’s what Section 17 says:
“The state shall indemnify and save harmless its employees in the amount of any judgment obtained against such employees in any state or federal court, or in the amount of any settlement of a claim, or shall pay such judgment or settlement; provided, that the act or omission from which such judgment or settlement arose occurred while the employee was acting within the scope of his public employment or duties; the duty to indemnify and save  harmless or pay prescribed by this subdivision shall not arise where the injury or damage  resulted from intentional wrongdoing on the part of the employee.”

So these laws only apply to former or current public officers?
That would be a safe generalization, for now. Section 17 covers – in general – current and former state officers, employees and volunteers in a state-sponsored program.

We say “for now,” because some legislators have proposed amendments to the laws, such as S4273A-2011, sponsored by Republican Senator Carl Marcellino, which would “would require the state to defend and indemnify independent contractors and their employees when they install temporary traffic controls at accident scenes and other unplanned incidents.”

If I’m eligible, how do I go about applying?
*Courtesy of SUNY’s University Counsel

When sued in an individual capacity in a civil suit:
– Send the summons, complaint, or other process, with your individual request for representation and defense pursuant to Section 17 the AG’s office either in Albany or New York City within five days of being served
– Fully cooperate with the attorney general in the defense of the matter, the defense of any related action against the state, and in the prosecution of any appeal
– Cross your fingers and hope you get AG approval

Is there a limit to the amount of money the state can dole out for each successful applicant for a reimbursement or indemnification?
No caps to the payouts are written into  the law, according to the State Comptroller’s office, and sums paid for lawyers vary on a “case by case basis.” One could describe Section 17 as unlimited state employee insurance for unintentional wrongdoing in the line of work. Pretty good deal.

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