Using the Economic Loss Doctrine to Defend Company Officers
One of the interesting aspects of litigating ERISA cases is the extent to which, for me anyway, it is part and parcel of a broader practice of representing directors and officers in litigation. From top hat agreements they have entered into, to being targeted in breach of fiduciary duty cases for decisions they participated in related to the management of an ERISA governed plan, directors and officers of all size companies spend a lot of their working life operating – in terms of legal issues – under the rubric of ERISA. In some ways, this is even more true of officers of entrepreneurial, emerging or smaller companies; due to the relative lack of hierarchy or distinct departments, in comparison to the largest corporations, officers of these types of companies often find themselves involved to one degree or another in almost every aspect of the company’s business, including retirement and other benefits that are likely to be governed by ERISA.
For me, one of the more interesting aspects of representing officers and directors in litigation is the question of when, if ever, they can be reached personally for actions that one would otherwise expect to be the responsibility of the company itself. Although lawyers are all taught in law school about the sanctity of the corporate form and the protection against liability it grants to company officers, lawyers quickly learn that, in practice, that is a principle more often honored in the breach. Both common and statutory law offer plaintiffs various ways around the protection of the corporate form, including, when it comes to retirement or benefit plans, breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA. The theories of piercing the corporate veil and participation in torts can also be exploited to avoid the shield against liability granted by the corporate form in many types of cases, although those can be difficult avenues to use to impose liability on a corporate officer.
All of these issues have one thing in common, which is a question of line drawing, consisting of determining exactly where the line should rest between the protection of the corporate form and the ability to impose liability on a company’s officers. One aspect of this line drawing that has always held great interest for me is the economic loss doctrine, which holds that contractual liabilities cannot be used as the basis for prosecuting tort claims. In the context of defending officers and directors against claims for personal liability based on a company’s actions, it serves as a strong defensive line against imposing tort liability on a corporate officer for the contractual liabilities and undertakings of the company itself. You can find a good example of this defense tactic in this summary judgment opinion issued by the business court in Philadelphia last week in one of my cases, in which I defended a corporate officer in exactly that type of case.
At the Intersection of Insurance and Plan Fiduciaries
Well, given the title of this blog, I couldn’t exactly let this decision pass unnoticed. In this decision from the Court of Appeals of New York, Federal Insurance Company v. IBM, the Court denied insurance coverage for IBM under an excess fiduciary liability (apparently) policy, for a settlement by IBM of a claim that amendments to benefit plans in the 1990s violated ERISA. The Court, in short, found that the claim did not invoke IBM’s status as a fiduciary under ERISA, essentially because it involved settlor, rather than fiduciary, functions. The Court applied standard rules of policy interpretation, under which insurance policy language must be given a reasonable construction under the circumstances, to conclude that policy language that applied to claims against a fiduciary involving ERISA meant claims where the insured qualified as a fiduciary under that statute, and did not, contrary to IBM’s arguments, involve any broader meaning of the word fiduciary.
Three points about the case interested me, which I thought I would mention. The first is the case’s status as an exemplar of a phenomenon of insurance work that I have frequently mentioned in the past, which is that all major litigation disputes end up in court twice: the first time as against the insured, and the next time as against the insurer, involving the question of whether that first dispute is covered under the insurance policies held by that insured.
The second is that the case illustrates one of the most important aspects of another theme of this blog, which is the importance of what I have come here to call defensive plan building, which is a fancy way of saying developing benefit plans and affiliated structures that protect plan sponsors and fiduciaries from liability. Having liability insurance in place to protect them from the costs and potential liabilities of litigation is crucial. While in this case IBM can easily afford the uncovered exposure, this will not be the case for the vast majority of plan sponsors. Careful attention to the scope of, and holes within, insurance coverage for benefit plan operations is crucially important.
And finally, the humorous aspect of the decision is the third item, consisting of IBM being put in the position, to seek coverage, of having to argue for a broad definition of fiduciary in the context of a plan dispute. As we know from the controversy over the Department of Labor’s recent attempt to expand the definition of fiduciary under ERISA to catch more fish, most entities run from the label of fiduciary like a groom from a shotgun wedding.
Fiduciary Liability: Risks and Insurance
What’s that old saying - your lack of foresight doesn’t make it my emergency, or something to that effect?
I am a little guilty of that here, in my advice to you, at the relative last minute, to hurry up and register for a webinar on the intersection of insurance law, ERISA and fiduciary liability. It is not that last minute, really, in that the webinar isn’t until Thursday, but still, I certainly could have given you more notice.
Either way, I wanted to recommend this upcoming presentation, “ERISA Fiduciaries Under Attack: Key Litigation and Regulatory Developments,” presented by blogger Susan Mangiero and a cast of thousands (well, two actually, but they are good ones), which will cover fiduciary liability issues and the management of those risks through fiduciary liability insurance. As you will no doubt note immediately, the presentation strikes right at the intersection of the two main topics of this blog.
Speaking for myself, I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding out there as to the scope and usefulness of insurance coverage in this area. I don’t think I have previously seen a webinar directly targeting this issue, so I think it’s a good one, and I highly recommend it. You can find out more about it on Susan’s blog, here.
Directors and Officers Coverage, Exclusions and the Magic Words "In Fact"
Here is a terrific article on the lessons about directors and officers insurance that should be taken from a series of rulings that eventually ended coverage for the Stanford Financial executives. I have said many times that because the scope of D & O insurance is so dependent on the scope of the exclusions, it is important to analyze and understand them when the policy is being acquired, and not wait until after a claim is made, when it may well be too late. That is, in essence, what happened to these executives; as the authors of the article point out, had they sought narrower exclusionary language when they acquired the policy, they might well have avoided the rulings against them that ended their insurance coverage. Of more precise importance, I have discussed in prior posts the significance of exclusions that apply if a certain conduct “in fact” happened; the article addresses the meaning of this language in depth, and contrasts it to other wording that, if used instead, would narrow the scope of the exclusion and, by extension, expand the scope of the coverage.
Doubling Down: Protecting the Director or Officer Against the Unknown and Unforeseen
Here’s a little story that rung an old bell for me, and provides an object lesson on a point I have made in the past in various forums concerning the protections against liability that need to be sought by officers and directors. The story concerns a decision out of the Tenth Circuit finding that a company did not have to indemnify one of its former corporate officers in total for legal fees related to the officer’s defense of a securities fraud case, despite a written agreement that appeared to impose such an obligation. I have not studied this case enough to hazard a guess as to whether the former officer, or the company indemnifying the officer, might have had access to coverage of those defense costs under a directors and officers policy. However, the case illustrates a principle I have often mentioned with regard to issues concerning service as a director or officer of a company - there is no way to know for certain long in advance of any particular claims being made whether the company will stand by an apparent obligation in its by-laws or other documents to indemnify an officer, nor can one be absolutely certain in the abstract whether the officer will have coverage against any such future claims under a directors and officers policy. There are too many variables to be certain, as the story reflects and evidences. As a result, as I discussed in detail here some time ago, it is important for directors and officers to protect themselves by doubling down on their protections, and requiring both broad indemnification protections in the company’s documentation and that the company acquire directors and officers coverage that is as broad as possible. That way, if and when a claim is made, if one of the two (the company or the directors and officers insurer) balks at paying for the defense of the officer or director, a second avenue of potential payment still exists. Certainly, as appears to have been the case in the little exemplar story discussed in this post, there may be claims in which neither will have to pay for all of the costs of defending the officer or director against a claim, but at least this two pronged approach gives the officer a reasonable shot at having someone pay those fees for him or her.
On Coverage for Financial Investigations, and an Echo from the Past
Little time to blog today - plus I still have to get up the latest chapter of our on-going serialization of Robert Plotkin’s book, The Genie in the Machine - but I did want to pass along, with a couple of brief comments, this excellent article on the question of whether there is coverage for governmental investigations under directors and officer or professional liability insurance. The article focuses really on two points. First of all, that there may be such coverage, but the time to determine that is not after a claim is made; the time to do so is in advance, when you are negotiating for the policy. This is a basic point I frequently make in seminars - a company needs to survey its potential exposures in advance, and structure the insurance it is purchasing to make sure that, to the extent the market will allow it, coverage is acquired in advance for those potential exposures. This is work your insurance broker and/or your outside coverage lawyers can help with, and it will cost a lot less than fighting later over whether or not there is coverage for an exposure that, with foresight, could have been anticipated and explicitly insured against. Second, the article discusses in depth the question of whether the investigation notice constitutes a claim that would trigger insurance coverage. This is a very interesting and subtle point, and the outcome can vary depending both on the jurisdiction involved and the particular language used to define the word claim in the particular policy at issue. On a more philosophical level, this point is interesting to me because it references back to something I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, namely the idea that all modern insurance coverage law harkens back to the doctrinal shifts that occurred as part of the large dollar insurance battles over coverage for asbestos and environmental exposures a quarter century ago; in this particular instance, the question of when notice from a government agency qualifies as a claim - which is discussed in this article with regard to an investigation into financial behavior - was first really developed in case law considering whether environmental clean up demand letters and notices constituted a claim that could trigger insurance coverage.
Deconstructing the Language of Insurance Policies
I have been thinking a lot recently about the development and history of particular aspects of insurance policy language, and how they reflect the continuing efforts of drafters to take language that can often be imprecise and refine it to more accurately reinforce what the insurer actually intends to take on as a covered risk. Over time, many policy forms are revised as insurers find that limited knowledge about a particular type of risk at the time a policy provision is first crafted or changes in the development of the law in a particular area after the initial drafting mean that the original language chosen by the policy drafters did not accurately enough capture the extent to which an insurer meant to include, or instead exclude, a particular exposure from coverage. Historically, for those old enough to remember it, my favorite example was the exclusion written by many carriers before asbestos litigation broke out in waves, that precluded coverage of claims for asbestosis. Personally, I have little doubt that those who drafted that policy language thought they were saying by that language that the policies do not cover any bodily injury/tort liabilities arising from the mining, sale, use, etc. of asbestos and asbestos based products, and that based on what the authors knew of the subject at that time, they thought they were writing such a broad limitation on coverage. As time moves on though, it becomes clear that many suits arising out of asbestos involve other physical ailments, and not just the particular disease of asbestosis. End result? Courts find that the exclusion does not apply to the other types of injuries, since they fall outside the express wording of the exclusions, which were only written as applying to asbestosis, even though the authors undoubtedly understood the word asbestosis to mean something much more than just the specific disease that would bear that name. Indeed, what possible logic could there be behind intentionally excluding just the tens of thousands of claims for asbestosis, and not the tens of thousands of claims arising from other, similar diseases that stem from asbestos exposure and inhalation?
The history of pollution exclusions in liability policies is much the same, and another classic example. It has only taken some forty years for policy language to catch up to the extent of exposure created by environmental liabilities, and the industry has spent an untold fortune covering such claims and defending against claims for coverage of such claims in the interim. That this occurred is completely understandable, as the extent of exposure for pollution losses expanded exponentially only after much of the (then) standard policy language governing this issue was written.
Of course, a sane person might ask why I am spending so much time thinking about this these days, and there are a number of answers to that question, some even halfway legitimate or rational. But the reason is primarily that very interesting articles on the historical development of particular pieces of policy language or structure keep crossing my desk, and they keep reinforcing these points.
Here are two of them. First, the D & O diarist, Kevin LaCroix, has as well written a history of the development and adoption of the breach of contract exclusion that has become standard in many forms of policies as I have seen anywhere. As he explains, insurers always understood that the insuring agreement in their policies covered tort liability, and did not expand coverage to contractual liability; in essence, insurers and insureds alike understood that policies did not cover an insured’s failure to comply with its contractual undertakings, without any need for particular or express policy language detailing that point. However, as Kevin captures in his piece, over time this understanding started to fade into the ether, and insurers found it necessary to add a specific exclusion to policies expressly stating what had, in the past, simply been understood by all concerned, without any need for an express exclusion to that effect.
The second is this historical overview of the development and expansion of claims made policies. In this instance, as the author explains, claims made policies were developed for a particular type of exposure, but because of the usefulness of that structure with regard to such issues as setting premiums and other practicalities of the insurance business, it expanded into other forms of coverage, becoming, eventually, the industry’s “go to” form of coverage.
All of these examples bring one back to the same point, which is that the seemingly dry, contractual recitations in insurance policies are actually only the current manifestation (pun intended, for any insurance coverage lawyers reading this) of what is actually a living, breathing, ever evolving form of literature.
A Potpourri of Interesting California Insurance Coverage Decisions
Permalink | Still on trial, but I did have time this afternoon to read this interesting piece, summarizing a number of interesting appellate decisions over the past year from California courts on a range of insurance coverage issues, running from post-claim underwriting of health insurance to the scope of coverage granted by directors and officers policies. The cases include one that provides an interesting analysis of the scope of the attorney-client privilege in the context of insurance, an issue I have talked about at some length in the past on this blog. You can find the article right here. For those of you interested in the subjects covered by this blog, it is probably a worthwhile read.
On Directors and Officers Insurance
Permalink | Earlier in the week, I promised to pass along over the course of the week some interesting articles on insurance coverage issues that I had been reading, and here we are, the end of the week already, and I haven’t done so, having been waylaid along the way by breaking news like the Ninth Circuit’s stay of the ruling that San Francisco’s health insurance ordinance was preempted. So in this post, I will pass along two more of the articles, both having to do with directors and officers insurance, a topic that I have mentioned in the past often raises problems for practitioners and clients, particularly in terms of understanding the scope of the coverage it grants and the nature of its exclusions. The first is this outstanding article here, laying out a road map for in-house counsel at publicly traded corporations over how to protect themselves from the various liability traps that have appeared for such corporate lawyers by navigating them through the ins and outs of the insurance coverage that may be available to them in that role. The article explains that many corporate counsel faced with problems from backdating inquiries and similar exposures will not in fact be protected by the directors and officers insurance purchased by their employers, and instead need to have their companies purchase a stand alone policy directed at covering the unique risks faced by in-house counsel to protect them against all of the investigations and lawsuits written up on the front pages of the business pages.
The second is this terrific interview here, in the Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, that really breaks down the structure of directors and officers insurance and the variables at play in obtaining it. One of the things I liked best about the article is that it reinforces the same point I often make when discussing directors and officers coverage and protection for people serving in that role, as I did here in this post, which is that directors and officers need to protect themselves by creating two separate lines of protection: first, they need to be guaranteed indemnification under the company’s by-laws against claims filed against them in their role as directors and officers, and then second they need to be protected as well by directors and officers insurance purchased by the company. In that way, the indemnification agreement can protect them against claims that might fall into exclusions or other gaps in the directors and officers coverage, thus keeping them free from personal exposure, and the insurance can protect them should the company go belly up or otherwise fall down on its obligation to indemnify them.
And this last point leads me to another topic that has crossed my path recently, namely the need to make sure that former directors and officers of public companies can rest their heads comfortably at night, without tossing and turning worrying about the possibility that their prior service as corporate officers might come back to haunt them, in the form of being named as a defendant in suits based on events that took place while they served on a board. Given the headlines in the papers and the increased risks of such service, one can understand how former board members may be concerned about personal liability after leaving a board. One answer to their concern is policies targeted directly at the risks and exposures of retired or former directors and officers, written for the express purpose of insuring them against claims instituted after they stop serving in that role. In much the same way that, as noted above, directors and officers insurance for current board members provides an additional level of shielding from potential personal liability, this product does the same thing for board members after they stop serving; one company providing the product, and more information on this type of insurance product, is here.
Disgorgement, Directors and Officers Insurance and the Meaning of Loss
Permalink | Ten, twenty years ago, insurance coverage litigation was predominately about broad issues and big ticket items, about the extent of insurance coverage across decades of policies for long term environmental pollution or for tens of thousands of asbestos related bodily injury claims. The actual coverage issues themselves tended to be of a big picture nature - such as whether years of dumping of pollutants was an accident for purposes of insurance policies, for instance - and were frequently not heavily focused on very narrow and highly technical aspects of policy language. Insurance coverage litigation today is, in contrast, much narrower in its focus, much more technical (see my post here, for example, about the years I once spent litigating the effect on coverage of the absence of the letter “s” from a particular provision in an insurance policy); it’s not necessarily better or worse than the whole forest picture cases of the past, just different.
A perfect example is in this (very good) article on the subject of whether disgorgement or restitution constitutes loss covered by directors and officers insurance. As the article explains, the issue revolves around the question of whether any particular recovery from directors and officers should fall within a policy’s specific definition of loss - these types of policies typically cover “loss” as defined in the policy, rather than damages, as is typically covered under liability policies - and on whether the exact recovery from the directors and officers in the particular claim at issue fits that definition.
For insurance coverage lawyers, it’s the kind of thing that is fun to fight over, but it is definitely the type of dispute where you are really focusing on a particular tree in the forest, and not (to happily and intentionally mix my metaphors) on a bigger picture. It is also the type of issue that shows why directors and officers insurance is often its own little planet when it comes to evaluating insurance coverage, because this particular issue is driven by the fact that the structure of and coverage under directors and officers policies focuses on the defined term loss. Business liability coverages, in contrast, do not center coverage on this concept, and instead are built around coverage for damages, and the question of whether disgorgement or restitution can constitute damages for purposes of such policies is quite different than the question of whether or not they constitute loss for purposes of directors and officers policies.
Directors and Officers Insurance, Backdating and Effective Coverage Counsel
Permalink | Sometimes when I give seminars on directors and officers coverage, I like to pass along a story I once heard of a law professor who gives his students what he considers an impossible hypothetical, namely, how would you respond to a client who walks in the door saying that she has been asked to join a board of directors and needs to know whether the company’s directors and officers insurance is sufficient protection for her. The reason the hypothetical is impossible, the professor posits, is because no one can say whether the directors and officers policy is sufficient in the abstract, and the scope of its coverage can only be understood by waiting to see the latest theories of liability being asserted against directors, and then examining how insurers are responding to them under the language of the directors and officers policies that they issue.
Now I have always thought that story overstates the case a little bit, in that certainly most areas of directors and officers exposure are sufficiently well developed that one can look at a directors and officers policy and provide a present or future board member with at least some general sense of the scope of their insurance protection. This is, after all, why people and companies hire insurance coverage lawyers: because they have the experience and knowledge base to understand a policy and provide some guidance, even in the abstract, as to what it covers and what it does not.
That said though, the story I noted above rang clearly in my head - and rang true - the other day when I came across a New York Times piece (only available by subscription or to those of you who still have Friday’s paper lying about) on the expanding risk of personal liability for directors based on backdated option grants. Two things jumped out at me. The first is that if there was ever an object lesson as to the need for directors and officers coverage, and why no one should ever leave home for a board meeting without it, this is it. Counsel to board members must look in advance, preferably at each renewal, at the scope of coverage being acquired for directors and officers exposures and the potential exposures of the board members, and make sure that the best product available on the market, the one that is best suited for those board members and their exposure risks, is obtained.
The second thing that really drew my attention was that the story fit perfectly with the law professor’s hypothetical, although in a way that may reflect insurers being at risk as much as the directors. To what extent are lawsuits and liabilities arising out of this newest scandal, if that is in fact what we should call it, within the coverages provided by directors and officers policies, most of which were drafted before the expansion of this fast growing risk? Does it fit within standard coverages that were already in play, or within standard exclusions already contained in the policies? Or is it a risk of a nature no one anticipated, and insurers are sitting there with policies that don’t have language that controls this risk? The answers to these questions are going to make a big difference in who actually ends up paying if directors are personally liable for these type of stock option manipulations - the officers themselves (or the companies they serve if they are obligated to indemnify the directors) or the insurers who issued directors and officers policies to those companies.
More on Who Should Pay for the Defense of Corporate Officers and Directors
Looks like I was not the only one intriqued by the article earlier in the week in the New York Times about companies who stop paying the legal bills of their officers, directors or employees, and the effect it has on the affected individuals. The wired gc talks about it here http://www.wiredgc.com/2006/04/17/corporate-legal-defense-fees-and-cooperation/.
This is one of those issues where your take on it seems to depend on where you sit. As my earlier posting on the subject showed, it illustrated to me the need for officers and directors to be proactive in ensuring that the company's bylaws and its directors and officers coverage work in tandem to protect them as much as possible from personally incurring substantial legal fees.
Funding the Defense of Corporate Directors and Officers
Directors and officers policies generally require an insurer to pay the defense costs incurred by a covered corporate officer when a claim is made against her or him. The insurer in that circumstance does not actually provide a defense, but instead, under the terms of the policies, normally must reimburse either the officer for his defense costs or the company itself, if the company is paying the defense bill. I have written and spoken on this point elsewhere, http://www.mccormackfirm.com/pubs/WhatEveryBusinessLawyer.pdf, and have mentioned that a corporate officer or director's best proactive plan is to both have such coverage and ensure that the company bylaws require indemnification; this provides directors and officers with two sources to pay the high legal bills that are often incurred in the types of cases brought against them. Although not directly on point, in the New York Times today is an interesting article about the impact of having to fund their own defense on corporate officers and employees who are charged with criminal wrongdoing, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/17/business/17legal.html?_r=1&oref=slogin.