ROBERT MURTHA v. CITY OF HARTFORD, SC 18751
Judicial District of New Haven
Police; Statutory Indemnification; Whether Plaintiff Officer, Who was Acquitted of Criminal Charges, is Entitled to Assert Claim for Lost Wages and Benefits Under § 53-39a; Whether the Legal Fees Awarded the Plaintiff Under § 53-39a Were Excessive. While working as a police officer for the defendant city, the plaintiff was charged with several criminal offenses, which led to his eventual discharge from employment. After being acquitted of all charges, the plaintiff, pursuant to General Statutes § 53-39a, brought this action against the defendant, seeking reimbursement for legal fees incurred in connection with his criminal case, as well as reimbursement for lost wages and other employment benefits. Section 53-39a provides that a police officer who has been charged with having committed a crime in the course of his official duties is entitled to indemnification from his employer for any economic loss, including the payment of any legal fees, sustained as a result of that prosecution if the officer is found not guilty. The defendant first argued that the plaintiff's employment claims were not cognizable under § 53-39a because such claims were in actuality breach of contract claims against the defendant, and not third-party indemnification claims. The trial court disagreed, stating that the term "indemnification" as used in § 53-39a was meant to be interpreted broadly, that is, as a duty to pay for another’s loss, rather than narrowly. Next, the defendant claimed that the plaintiff's claim for employment benefits should be dismissed on the ground that the plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies provided in the collective bargaining agreement. The court again disagreed, ruling that General Statutes § 31-51bb gives employees blanket rights to pursue litigation under state statutes despite the existence of collective bargaining agreements. Next, the defendant argued that the entire amount of attorney's fees sought by the plaintiff were excessive because his defense attorneys billed him only for their retainer fees and billed it directly for the remainder of their fees. It thus maintained that the plaintiff was only obligated to pay the fees for which he had been billed and it was not liable to indemnify the plaintiff for any amount in excess of those fees. The court rejected the defendant's argument, ruling that the plaintiff assumed an obligation to pay all of his attorney's fees under his fee agreements with the lawyers and, therefore, the defendant was liable to indemnify the plaintiff for those fees. Thereafter, the court rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him damages, which included lost salary, lost overtime and legal fees in connection with the criminal prosecution. On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court improperly failed to construe § 53-39a strictly and in accordance with indemnity law. If § 53-39a were so construed, the defendant contends, it necessarily leads to the conclusion that the trial court improperly (a) awarded attorney's fees beyond those actually incurred by the plaintiff, and (b) concluded that the plaintiff's employment claims are cognizable under § 53-39a. Additionally, the defendant claims that the trial court improperly failed to dismiss the plaintiff's employment claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.