NJ Supreme Court to Address Indemnification of County Prosecutors

The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently agreed to hear Christopher J. Gramiccioni v. Department of Law and Public Safety. The case involves whether the Attorney General’s Office was required to indemnify the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office over a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the estate of a woman killed by her ex-husband, a police officer.

NJ Supreme Court to Address Indemnification of County Prosecutors

Legal Background

Under N.J.S.A. 59:10-1, the New Jersey Attorney General owes defense and indemnity to state employees. County prosecutors occupy the “hybrid role” of serving both the State and county. When county prosecutors exercise their law enforcement authority, they are acting on behalf of and accountable to the State. Meanwhile, when county prosecutors “perform administrative tasks unrelated to their strictly prosecutorial functions, such as a decision whether to promote an investigator, the county prosecutor in effect acts on behalf of the county that is the situs of his or her office.” Lavezzi v. State, 219 N.J. 163, 171 (2014).

In State v. Wright, 169 N.J. 422 (2001), the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that the Attorney General must defend and indemnify county prosecutors “for the tortious actions” committed “in the performance of their law enforcement duties.” However, when county prosecutors are sued for actions performed while carrying out administrative tasks, they are not considered “agents” or “officers” of the State and no defense and indemnification is owed. Meanwhile, the Lavezzi Court explained the distinction between law enforcement and administrative actions:

The question is not whether the underlying liability has any nexus to law enforcement; a personnel or organizational decision is deemed administrative even if it affects the manner in which the prosecutor’s office administers its law enforcement responsibilities. Instead, the test is whether the act or omission of the county prosecutor’s office and its employees that gave rise to the potential liability derived from the prosecutor’s power to enforce the criminal law, and constituted an exercise of that power.

Facts of Gramiccioni v. Department of Law and Public Safety

On June 16, 2015, Philip Seidle, an off-duty Neptune Township police sergeant, shot and killed his ex-wife Tamara Wilson-Seidle with his service weapon. Wilson-Seidle’s estate (Estate) brought a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, Kirsten Seidle, et al. v. Neptune Township, et al., No. 17-4428 (D.N.J. June 16, 2017), against the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO), Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni, and former Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutors Gregory J. Schweers, Jacquelynn F. Seely, and Richard E. Incremona, among other law enforcement agencies. The suit alleged that alleged the defendants failed to properly protect Wilson-Seidle, permitted Seidle to remain on the police force, improperly returned Seidle’s service weapons after they were civilly seized, failed to follow the Attorney General’s guidelines for handling domestic violence complaints, and failed to conduct an administrative investigation.

The MCPO and Gramiccioni subsequently sought defense and indemnification from the New Jersey Attorney General. Relying on Wright, the Attorney General distinguished claims arising from “classic” law enforcement activities, which the Attorney General must defend and indemnify, from administrative functions, which are carried out on behalf of the county and are not eligible for defense and indemnification. Accordingly, the Attorney General declined to provide indemnification for claims related to allowing Seidle to remain employed, permitting him to have a service weapon, and reinstating him after a suspension. However, it agreed to indemnify the defendants for claims related to ailing to monitor evidence of stalking by Seidle, failing to conduct a proper internal affairs investigation, failing to respond properly to the scene of the fatal shooting, and failing to file or assist Wilson-Seidle with filing a restraining order against Seidle.

The MCPO and Gramiccioni appealed, arguing that the return of the service weapon and allowing Seidle to remain employed were law enforcement functions. Thereafter, the estate of Wilson-Seidle filed several amended complaints, adding new parties and restating certain claims.  In the third amended complaint, the estate stated that “at all relevant times [appellants] were acting in an administrative capacity as opposed to a law enforcement or investigatory function.” Citing this language, the Attorney General issued a blanket denial of defense and indemnification for all claims in the third amended complaint.

Appellate Division’s Decision

The Appellate Division concluded the Attorney General properly applied Wright and correctly determined which claims in the original complaint pertained to appellants’ law enforcement or administrative functions. However, it found that the Attorney General failed to apply the same scrutiny to the subsequent amended complaints.

“We reverse the Attorney General’s denial of defense and indemnification as to the first amended, second amended and third amended complaints to the extent that certain allegations, previously determined by the Attorney General to relate to the exercise of law enforcement functions, and thus covered under Wright, were re-pled notwithstanding their purported dismissal with prejudice,” the panel wrote.

Issues Before the NJ Supreme Court

The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification on November 4, 2019. The court has agreed to consider the following question: “Under the circumstances presented, was the Attorney General required to defend and indemnify the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, the Monmouth County Prosecutor, and Assistant Prosecutors named as defendants in a civil complaint, pursuant to Wright v. State, 169 N.J. 422 (2001)?”

Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled in the case.

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