Sergeant Entitled To Employer-Paid Defense In Police Officer’s Lawsuit

Michael Stassi was a police officer for the Village of North Syracuse, New York. Stassi brought a civil rights lawsuit against the Village, its mayor, and several former employees of the Department, including Daniel Keefe, a former sergeant in the Department. When the Village denied Keefe’s request for representation in the lawsuit, he asked the federal court judge presiding over the case to require the Village to provide representation.

The Judge agreed with Keefe. The Judge observed that public bodies in New York are obligated by statute to “provide for the defense of the 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 public employment or duties.”

The Village argued that since Stassi did not allege that Keefe acted within the scope of his employment, and since the Village’s own investigation determined that Keefe was acting outside of the scope of his employment in his dealings with Stassi, it had no obligation to provide Keefe representation. The Judge saw things differently, ruling:

“To be sure, there are no allegations in the complaint describing Keefe’s motives as personal. Moreover, while threats of physical harm may arguably be outside the scope of one’s employment, the imposition of disciplinary charges and changes in shift schedules, all alleged by Stassi, are clearly actions taken in furtherance of one’s employment duties, and are activities over which an employer could be exercising some control. Thus, the allegations in Stassi’s complaint triggered the Village’s duty to provide Keefe with a defense.”

Stassi v. Village of North Syracuse, 2009 WL 3334512 (N.D. N.Y. 2009).

This article appears in the January 2010 issue