New York City must defend school employees sued for hitting students even though the behavior violates their employment rules, the state's top court ruled Thursday.

The Court of Appeals concluded that a 1960 state law requires paying legal fees for a teacher, administrator or other school employee facing court for actions taken "while in the discharge of his duties within the scope of his employment." That's not limited to "the proper and lawful discharge" of those duties, and it even includes defense against criminal prosecution, the court said.

In rejecting city arguments and overturning a midlevel court, the six judges said that law governs these cases despite a later measure that specifically prohibited defending city school workers for actions that violate their rules such as hitting students for misbehavior.

"It is well established that an act is within the scope of employment if it 'was done while the servant was doing his master's work, no matter how irregularly, or with what disregard of instructions,' " Judge Robert Smith wrote.

While city attorneys argued that in 1960 corporal punishment was permissible in much of New York, and the 1960 statute was intended to benefit "only employees whose conduct was within the rules," Smith noted that the city by then had already prohibited hitting students.

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"Section 3028 requires the city to provide an attorney not just in civil, but also in criminal cases," Smith wrote.

The top court annulled the earlier rulings and sent the cases back to lower courts for further proceedings. Attorney Stuart Lichten, who represented two teacher's aides in separate cases, said that will consist of determining legal fees owed him so far and the counsel to defend Deborah Sagal-Cotler and Josephine Thomas in civil lawsuits against them. The City Law Department had denied both women's requests for legal defense.