Under New Jersey law, school officials and employees are generally entitled to indemnification and coverage for legal costs that they may incur as part of a civil or administrative action brought against them. This could include tenure charges or actions before the School Ethics Commission. A recent court decision makes clear that employees must promptly notify the District after a claim is filed against them to ensure they receive indemnification and can recover legal fees expended.
In Azzaro v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Trenton, a school administrator was subjected to an administrative action seeking to revoke her teaching certificate. The employee retained her own attorney and never asked the Board to cover her defense costs during the twelve years that the administrative case was ongoing. After the charges were dismissed, the employee requested that the District reimburse her for $430,800 in attorneys’ fees. The Board objected.
The Court held that the employee “had an obligation to advise the Board they sought defense costs within a reasonable period of time after the [action] was filed.” It further wrote that “[w]hat constitutes a reasonable time may be a fact-specific inquiry[,]” but that the Court was “convinced bringing an action . . . twelve years after . . . was not reasonable under the circumstances.” Based upon this decision, if a school official or employee if ever subject to a civil or administrative action, he or she should promptly notify the District and demand indemnification.
The Court also addressed whether an employee can hire their own attorney or if they must use the District’s counsel. The Court explained that the District can meet its indemnification obligation by: (1) appointing the Board attorney if there is no conflict, (2) appointing outside counsel that would owe allegiance only to the employee and not the Board, or (3) coming to an agreement with the employee on an attorney of his or her own choosing. As such, an employee should promptly make demands to ensure they are receiving appropriate representation under the circumstances, including hiring outside counsel if necessary to avoid a conflict.
King, Moench & Collins LLP provides counsel to school officials and employees on indemnification issues. If you are a school official or employee that becomes subject to a civil or administrative action, please contact us for legal representation. Michael L. Collins, Esq. can be reached at (732) 546-3670 or email@example.com.
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