Sanders v. The Phoenix Insurance Company Is a Comprehensive Insurance Coverage Decision, But Have Bad Facts Again Made Bad Law?
So this is interesting, from a couple of perspectives. The First Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a fairly comprehensive opinion addressing a number of issues in insurance coverage law in Massachusetts. The facts are a little salacious, and read more like a John Grisham plot than real life, but unfortunately, odd facts often underlie key decisions in insurance law. I say unfortunately because it means that many decisions concerning insurance coverage are often so unique to their unusual facts that they can easily be distinguished away by litigants in other cases, leaving parties with less guidance for future conduct than one would expect to glean from the case law. This case is a perfect example: I will bet this fact pattern will never, ever repeat itself in an insurance coverage dispute.
Nonetheless, this case has some discussions that apply broadly enough that the ruling can easily be expanded to other cases. For instance, the Court answers the question of whether Chapter 93A demand letters – which Massachusetts law requires a party to send to a business before suing it for unfair trade practices – can trigger a duty to defend. The Court held that it cannot, and distinguished away a key, longstanding Massachusetts decision that many lawyers have used for years to argue to the contrary. Still, I have to say that even on this point, I am not totally convinced that the issue is settled after this decision; I think there will be room to argue to the contrary in other cases that involve other fact patterns and, more importantly, somewhat different policy language. Personally, I am skeptical that, although the decision suggests that it should be or is the rule, no Chapter 93A demand letter, no matter what relief it seeks or the details of the claim, can ever trigger coverage under any policy language.
I would also highlight the Court’s analysis of the issue of whether an assignment of rights to the claimant from the insured gave rise to a viable claim for recovery against the insurer. The Court found that policy language governing when the insurer agreed to be sued precluded such a claim. It would be beyond the scope of a relatively short blog post to explain why that ruling has some wobbly legs underneath it, but suffice it to say, as I do in this article in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly on the case, that, after this ruling, lawyers who are considering assigning insurance rights as part of a settlement need to carefully consider whether there is any value to doing so in Massachusetts.
The decision is Sanders v. The Phoenix Insurance Company, which you can find here.
A Reminder of Why Insurance Companies Matter
Its entirely politically incorrect in 2015, and rightfully so, to ever equate litigation (or football, or anything else) to war, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are historical lessons to be learned from military history and wonderful allusions and metaphors to be drawn from it. See, for instance, my early article on excessive fee litigation under ERISA, which predicted that early defense rulings would eventually give way to favorable plaintiff rulings; to capture that idea of fortune shifting from one side to the other, I borrowed, for the article’s title, the American Civil War concept of the high water mark, which was the furthest point north that the Confederacy advanced into Pennsylvania before the tide turned on the Confederacy once and for all.
This morning, again, something about litigation drew me back, for a historical reference, to the Civil War, namely to the battle of the Wilderness, where soldiers fought among such dense forests that they effectively could not see the forest for the trees, in a nearly literal sense. Those of us who litigate insurance related disputes on a regular basis often likewise get lost in the trees, focused on the specific details of whether a particular claim is covered or not, and whether an insurer did the right thing (or acted in bad faith, to use the legal concept) in a particular situation.
However, the picture of the insurance industry, from 30,000 feet and looking at the forest as a whole, is brighter than that which a narrower focus on the specifics of an individual claim would otherwise paint. Eamonn Freeman, Managing Director of an insurance company based in Ireland, has created an interactive presentation of the world’s largest disasters, and the scale of the insurance payments arising from them. As you flip through it, just think how much worse the suffering from these catastrophes would have been without insurance companies, which is the most interesting lesson, I think, that you can take from the presentation.
On the Impact of Reservation of Rights Letters
Permalink | I have written before on a number of occasions about the tripartite relationship that comes into play when an insurer retains defense counsel to represent an insured against a covered lawsuit. In particular, I have discussed my views that the relationship is nowhere near as complicated as many people make it out to be, and that the proper scope of the dealings among all the players in that three sided transaction can be summed up in three handy rules of thumb, which, conveniently enough, you can find right here.
However, what is more complicated and what many people seem to have less understanding of is what are the insured’s rights when the insurer - whether it or instead the insured has selected and is paying the defense lawyers - is limiting its coverage by means of a reservation of rights, which is in essence a letter stating that the insurer will cover only parts, but not all, of any possible loss in a particular case. In many jurisdictions, these circumstance gives rise to a number of substantive powers and subtle leverages on the part of the insured, and likewise to many express duties and subtle pressure points on the part of the insurer. Those, much more than the much simpler dynamics of the tripartite relationship, are worth knowing about, and if you think so too, you may want to attend this teleconference on the subject, scheduled for tomorrow.
What Happens When ERISA and the Law of Insurance Coverage Collide?
Permalink | Wow, I guess this is really Seventh Circuit week here, with, I guess, a particular focus on the jurisprudence of Judge Easterbrook, whose opinion in Baxter I discussed in my last post. This time, I turn to his decision from Wednesday in Federal Insurance Co. v. Arthur Andersen, which strikes right at the intersection of the two subject areas in the title of this blog, insurance and ERISA. The Arthur Andersen opinion concerns the extent of coverage, if any, for Arthur Andersen’s massive settlement of lawsuits related to its retirement liabilities upon its well publicized, post-Enron collapse, under a policy covering breaches of fiduciary duty. The court found that there was no coverage, for a number of reasons, the most salient of which being that, first, the losses in question were the actual pension amounts, which the policy does not cover (it instead covers only other losses related to a pension plan, separate from the actual amount of the pension benefits in question), and second, that although the claims in question related to pension plans, they were not actually for breaches of fiduciary duty related to such plans, which is all that the policy actually responds to. There are some interesting lessons for plan sponsors and plan administrators in these findings: first, that it is important to remember that, in buying fiduciary liability coverage, this is not the same thing as insuring the benefits owed to pensioners themselves, and, second, that the exact scope of the coverage is narrow and limited by its exact terms, which may not extend coverage to the specific allegations of any particular lawsuit arising from the pension plan. What’s the take away? A close look by an expert is needed when selecting insurance coverage for pension plans and the people who run them, if for no other reason than to have an accurate understanding of the extent to which potential problems with the plans may actually be covered.
Beyond these lessons in the case for people on the ERISA side of this blog’s title, the decision provides a fascinating run through a number of complicated insurance coverage topics for those of you who are interested in the insurance coverage half of this blog’s title. The judge - or perhaps his clerk, I don’t know the practices in that particular court - writes fluidly on the law of estoppel, waiver, the duty to defend, and the respective rights of the insurer and the insured when it comes to control of the defense and settlement of a covered lawsuit.
Want to Learn More About the Tripartite Relationship?
Permalink | One of the widest read and linked to posts I have written recently was this one here providing the law of the so-called tripartite relationship in thumb nail fashion. Interest in this topic surprises me to a certain extent, because very much the point of the post was that, despite all the seminars and publications addressing the topic, I really think the rules governing the relationship among insureds, insurers and insurer appointed defense counsel boil down to a pretty simple set of working principles, which I discussed in that blog post.
However, it is clear that many people have a great deal of questions about the topic and want more education on the subject, and I can think of no better sources to answer such questions and provide education on it than the panelists on this upcoming seminar on the topic; among the panelists is Marc Mayerson, who writes the Insurance Scrawl blog on insurance coverage topics.
Insurance Coverage, Tuberculosis, and that Guy on the Plane
Permalink | You see, everything at the end of the day is about insurance. Risk sharing that allows smaller businesses to move forward with operations, plaintiffs’ decisions over who has enough insurance to warrant suing, even the economic dislocations of climate change - everything comes back to the insurance industry. Here’s a great example, and an amusing one. Remember the lawyer who flew across the Atlantic after being diagnosed with tuberculosis? And who naturally was thereafter sued by other passengers who became quite worried about what they might have picked up from the guy? (Your faithful correspondent here moves three rows away on a commuter train if someone even sniffles, so I certainly have sympathies for those other passengers.) Well, he notified his homeowner’s insurer of those cases and the insurer is paying to defend him, but it has now launched the real battle, namely litigation over whether or not there is coverage for these claims against him; if there isn’t, he’s stuck paying any judgments or settlements. You can find the whole story here. A couple of interesting side points. First, there is no doubt the insurer is, as the article suggests, taking the right tack here; the proper approach is to defend and simultaneously ask a court to declare whether there is any coverage. This is particularly so in this instance because of the second side point, which is that, on first glance, those coverage defenses of the homeowner’s insurer noted in the article aren’t the best; without even knowing the facts beyond what I’ve read in the media in the past or reading the complaint, I can spot the potential holes in their arguments from here. When coverage is particularly debatable, it makes no sense for an insurer to simply deny coverage and leave the insured on its own, because of the potential exposures - a long story, best saved for another day - that can attach to the insurer if it is wrong in deciding that there is no coverage; rather, the best tactical play in that situation is to defend the insured, and to not deny coverage unless and until a court agrees there is no coverage. The downsides to the insurer in that situation are nothing more than the costs of litigating the coverage question and possibly, depending on the jurisdiction, having to pay the insured’s costs in the coverage litigation if the court decides there is coverage; that’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the potential liabilities, including bad faith judgments, that can attach to an insurer that simply denies coverage on its own, and is later found to have been wrong.
The Three Rules of the Tripartite Relationship
Permalink | We’ve been a little ERISA heavy here for awhile now, somewhat to the detriment of the insurance litigation half of the blog’s title, simply because of the range of interesting events that have taken place under the ERISA rubric lately. While all that was going on, though, a particularly good collection of articles on different insurance coverage topics have crossed my (electronic) desktop, and I want to pass them along as well; I will try to scatter them in with other posts over the next week or so, until I exhaust them.
One I wanted to pass along is this article here, by two prominent policyholder attorneys, on the tripartite relationship, which concerns the potentially conflicting loyalties of defense counsel appointed by an insurer to defend an insured against a lawsuit that may or may not be covered. This problem stems from the fact that insurers are often obligated to provide insureds with a defense against cases that may turn out, upon further development of the facts of the case, to not actually be covered, in which event the insurer will not have to cover any judgment or settlement, and might even be entitled to recoup from the insured the amount paid to defend the case in certain circumstances and jurisdictions.
Although there is much written and said about the tripartite relationship, the whole topic comes close to falling into the much sound and fury signifying nothing realm, although not completely because there is some substance to the issue, only not as much as lawyers like to make it out to be. The whole issue can really be boiled down to three handy rules of thumb. First, the defense counsel appointed by the insurer must focus only on defending the case as though the insured were his or her only client, and cannot muddle about between the insurer and the insured over any coverage issues that remain outstanding. Second, the insurer needs to retain separate lawyers, in the role of so-called coverage counsel, to take the factual information developed by defense counsel in defending the case and evaluate how it affects coverage. And third, an insured must remember that the defense counsel is solely going to defend the case, without regard to coverage disputes and is not looking out for the insured’s interests with regard to whether any recovery in the case will actually be covered; the insured has to instead hire independent coverage counsel of its own to take steps to parlay the evidence developed by the defense counsel into a commitment of coverage by the insurer.
Me and LaRue, and Business Insurance Too
Permalink | There is an article in Business Insurance magazine this week, the June 25th issue, on the Supreme Court accepting review of the LaRue decision, in which I am quoted. The article is here - subscription required - and if you read it, you will note that it ends on my comment that I expect the Supreme Court to overturn the Fourth Circuit. A short article intended really just as a little news blurb on the subject for the benefit of the magazine’s business management oriented readership, the reporter did not have the space to go into why I think the Court will overturn the lower court decision, but I, obviously, have the space to do so here. So to the extent anyone is interested in the question, here’s my thinking.
First, I don’t really expect the Court to do much, if anything, with the question of the scope of equitable remedies issue. If anything, given the language of the statute, despite the fact that many people want the Court to expand individual remedies and available damages under ERISA - including, I have found in my litigation practice, many District Court judges who are displeased with the limitations of the statute but nonetheless consider themselves duty bound to enforce its restrictions on recovery - the Court has probably read the range of equitable relief that can be pursued in as broad and pro-plaintiff a manner as the language allows, with its test of whether the relief sought would be equitable or not way back in the days of the divided bench. There simply isn’t much more you can do with the statute’s restriction of recovery in certain circumstances to equitable relief unless you are simply going to ignore the actual language of the statute and rewrite it by judicial fiat, which this Court certainly isn’t going to do and arguably, the thinking of Ronald Dworkin and his heirs aside, no court should do.
In a way, this issue is a perfect parallel to a long running and common problem in the insurance coverage field, in which there was an oft litigated dispute over whether insurance policies, because they only cover claims for damages, cover lawsuits seeking equitable relief, the issue being that the policies only cover damages and equitable relief is something different than damages. In both insurance coverage and ERISA cases - such as LaRue - the simple fact of the matter is that equitable relief does mean something particular, something that is different than a claim for damages, and the question is what is the impact of that difference.
Second, with regard to the more fundamental question of whether the individual plan participant could recover just for losses to his account in the plan, yes, I do think the Court will overrule the Fourth Circuit and find that such an individual plan participant can bring such an action. I can never recall whether the saying is that the Court follows the election returns, or is that the Court doesn’t follow the election returns, so I looked it up, and in fact the saying is that they follow the returns, although every author who writes this then adds qualifiers to the comment, such as in this piece here. Either way, the kind of relief sought by the plaintiff in the LaRue case, to be able to enforce his investment instructions in his own retirement savings account, clearly fits with the current Zeitgeist and, more interestingly, is of a piece - and a natural fit with - the changes to retirement savings plans put into place by the Pension Protection Act. Beyond that, the statutory language that is at issue in this part of the case is completely open to either the interpretation selected by the Fourth Circuit, or that sought by the plaintiff, and thus the Court can realign this part of ERISA without doing any violence to the statutory language. Combine these things, and I get a reversal.
The Eleventh Most Important Insurance Coverage Decision of 2006
Permalink | End of the year lists, to alter an old off color joke, are like opinions: everyone, it seems this time of year, has one. Some are superficial, silly and cursory, like this one here, and others, like Randy Maniloff’s list discussed in my last post, are substantive. For those of you who couldn’t get enough of Randy’s breakdown of the leading coverage decisions issued in the last year, David Rossmiller has his own interesting take on Randy’s top ten list here, including David’s wish that one of his favorite cases - from the Hurricane Katrina coverage cases - had made the list. For myself, I would have included a recent decision out of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the list of top ten decisions, in which the state’s highest court cabined a developing trend in Massachusetts court decisions shifting the insured’s costs of litigating coverage disputes onto the insurer, at least in cases where the insured prevails in establishing coverage. I discussed that case here.
And why would I have included it in a list like Randy’s? Because beyond just its holding, I think, when you combine it with other decisions out of that particular court in the last year or so, you see a court beginning to rethink a tendency reflected in the state’s common law to favor insureds in coverage disputes, and to disconnect insurance coverage law from contract doctrines and the actual terms of the insurance policy to do so. We see, in cases such as this one, a swinging back of the pendulum, towards a more level field in the courtroom, at least at this point in this state. Time will tell whether this trend is real, and if it is, the results themselves will tell us whether it is a good thing. But for me, having watched a few generations of the Supreme Judicial Court approach this subject area in differing ways, this is what I make of the recent run of decisions out of that court.
And maybe, in honor of New Year’s, that is my own little take on the crystal ball: that we will see this trend continue in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, with an inevitable trickling down to the state’s intermediate appellate bench and its trial courts.
Attorney's Fee Awards, and the Duty to Indemnify
Permalink | I have written before about the American Rule - which requires parties to a lawsuit, in the absence of a fee shifting statute or contractual agreement, to pay their own legal fees - and the exception under Massachusetts law that runs in favor of insureds who prevail in coverage cases against their insurers. The Supreme Judicial Court has now established that this exception runs only to disputes over an insurer’s duty to defend, and not to disputes over the duty to indemnify. Thus, while an insured who proves that its insurer breached a duty to defend can recover from the insurer its legal fees in proving this point, the same is not true for an insured who proves that its insurer breached the duty to indemnify. Here’s the story, with a link to the case.
This resolves an unsettled point of Massachusetts law, as to whether the right to recover attorneys fees runs along with a claim over the duty to indemnify, or instead only along with a claim for breach of the duty to defend. It turns out to be the latter only.
In the long run, it’s a better decision than the opposite holding would have been. A decision to deny indemnity without a reasonable basis for doing so is already punishable in Massachusetts under the state’s consumer protection act. When, in contrast, a denial of indemnity is reasonable, an insurer should be able to try to prove that its coverage determination was correct without having to factor in the risk of having to pay the insured’s legal fees if a court finds that the insurer’s interpretation of its coverage obligations, while reasonable, was wrong.