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.
Intellectual Property Exclusions and Trends in Insurance Coverage Law in Massachusetts
At this point, I think we are entering a new era in Massachusetts law concerning insurance coverage, one different than any I have seen before in my decades of litigating such cases in the Commonwealth. In this brave new world, policies are apparently applied as written, and insureds cannot just claim ambiguities or that they had expectations - somehow reasonable despite being contrary to the actual wording of the policy - of coverage somehow different than that actually provided. That, at least, is the moral of Finn v. National Union, decided last week by the Supreme Judicial Court. In essence, the court enforced the plain language of an intellectual property exclusion in the policy, despite attempts by the insured to argue that it did not necessarily encompass some of the factual variation of the particular claim at issue, and the court expressly held as well that the reasonable expectations doctrine is inapplicable because the exclusion unambiguously precluded coverage. The court, interestingly, didn’t even elect to stop there, deciding to also hammer home the point that the plain language of unambiguous policy provisions controls, by pointing out that extrinsic evidence supporting a contrary reading of the policy cannot be considered in the absence of ambiguity; this is contrary to decades of actual practice in the state’s trial courts, where lawyers for policyholders would regularly toss anything and everything possibly pointing towards coverage into their arguments. The novelty of this idea in Massachusetts practice is illustrated by the fact that the court actually had to go back almost 40 years and then another 40 years more to find two Massachusetts cases to cite to that effect, despite how widely accepted and uncontroversial this idea is in other jurisdictions. A new day dawning? Maybe, but it certainly fits with my sense of the development of insurance coverage case law in this state over the past few years.
Insureds, Prior Knowledge and Insurance Coverage
Permalink | One of the more ambiguous and gray areas in insurance coverage law is the question of when an insured is or should be aware that a claim is on its way. The law recognizes that this can certainly occur at some point before the insured actually is handed suit papers by a process server, but the law is certainly not crystal clear as to when that is. This is a question of particular importance for insureds because various contractual policy terms in a policy and various common law principles read into the insurance relationship can all preclude coverage if that date is deemed to be before the effective date of the insurance in force when the insured actually is served with the suit papers. For instance, many policies contain terms precluding coverage if the insured knew or should have known of the potential claim before a policy took effect and, for that matter as well, failure to disclose an expected claim in applying for a policy can result in the policy being voided for misrepresentation in many jurisdictions.
Of interest on this topic is this article here at Law.com concerning whether attorneys, covered under professional liability policies, are on notice in this manner whenever an unhappy client complains about a case or, if not whenever the client complains, how much complaining is necessary for the insured to be aware that a claim is likely and to lose coverage as a result if and when that client does file suit. A new declaratory judgment action filed in New Jersey seeks to answer that particular question. Of particular interest to me, however, is the fact context in which the complaining arose. It concerned a client unhappy with the terms of a settlement negotiated by the insured attorney. It’s a cliche of mediation, uttered by every mediator trying to push two unhappy parties to reach agreement on a resolution, that “a good settlement is one where both sides are unhappy.” Well, if that’s the case, then does the complaining after the fact mean that the lawyers involved are always thereafter on notice of a potential claim that they have to report to their malpractice insurers? It would be kind of silly to have a legal rule holding that the usual griping that often accompanies settlement has to be reported to the lawyers’ insurers to protect their rights to coverage in those one out of a million times that the complaining eventually morphs into a malpractice suit. Admittedly, this is something of a deliberately far fetched example, but it does point out the practical considerations that have to be factored into the question of how far in advance of the filing of suit the insured’s obligations can attach. Too far in advance, and the legal rule creates an unworkable, burdensome scenario for all involved, including insurers who would have to process multiple and unnecessary notices concerning many events that will never lead to suit; not far enough in advance and insurers lose the protections those policy terms and common law doctrines were intended to provide.
The First Circuit on Professional Liability Insurance
Permalink | What SCOTUSBLOG does for the Supreme Court - maintaining a steady and running review of goings on at the high court - Appellate Law and Practice does for the First Circuit, only with a little more humor and quirkiness than SCOTUSBLOG employs. A regular check of Appellate Law and Practice ensures that you don’t miss anything at all, yet alone anything of importance to your own practice areas, that takes place at the First Circuit.
I mention this today because Appellate Law and Practice has the story of a decision out of the First Circuit last week concluding that, as is in fact the rule, business decisions and activities that are not unique to the type of professional services conducted by an insured are not within the scope of that insured’s professional liability coverage. To quote Appellate Law and Practice,
In short, under what the First thinks is Massachusetts law, professional “Errors and Omissions” insurance (in this case for an insurance broker) doesn’t cover business decisions, which, in this case was a breach of an exclusivity agreement that resulted in an arbitration award. Or, in the words of the First, “A promise by an agent to represent one insurer exclusively for certain lines of insurance is not itself a professional service, nor does a diversion of business in breach of such a contract comprise the performance of professional service. The closest cases interpreting Massachusetts insurance law hold that overcharging clients in fees, even though for work done in a professional capacity, is not itself a professional service covered by malpractice or E&O policies.”
The First Circuit is right about this issue, and between rulings out of that circuit and from the state courts, Massachusetts is becoming a jurisdiction in which this rule is clear and can be expected to be enforced. Not all jurisdictions are like that about this issue, and it can sometimes be hard to convince a court that this is the rule, because it is a limitation on coverage that is generally not expressly laid out in professional liability policies and is instead something that logically flows from the language and structure of the policy. This is not the case in the First Circuit or Massachusetts, however, where the courts clearly get this point.
Insurance Coverage for Pension Plan Fiduciaries
Permalink | There is an interesting interrelationship between the two primary subjects of this blog, ERISA litigation and insurance coverage, and one that I had not really thought much about until Rick Shoff, who works with Mike Pratico over at CapTrust Financial Advisors, raised it in a conversation recently. As I have mentioned in the past, Mike and his colleagues at CapTrust serve as fiduciary advisors to retirement plans and their sponsors, and he and Rick commented to me about the issue of errors and omissions insurance and the necessary amount of coverage for fiduciary advisors.
Two points came out of our conversation that I thought I would pass along. First, what is the appropriate amount of coverage for a fiduciary advisor under its E&O insurance? What should the relationship be between the limits selected and the amount of assets in the plans that the advisor works with? Obviously, the limits can’t match the asset amounts, as any good advisor is likely advising on plans with assets far higher than the amount the advisor could purchase in E&O insurance, at least not without paying every penny the advisor earns over to the insurance company as premiums (and even then, I doubt limits that high could be obtained). It also would not be necessary, since an advisor’s potential exposure to a lawsuit undoubtedly would never equal the total amount of the assets in a particular plan, but instead would equal only some portion of it that was supposedly affected by an error by the advisor. My own take is that the proper policy limit is somewhere around the amount that would make a plaintiff in a hypothetical claim consider settlement within the policy limits, without trying to obtain an excess verdict that the advisor itself would have to pay.
The second issue that popped up is the range of actors out there who are involved in providing advice to retirement plans, participants and the like. It may well be that not all such companies and consultants, even if they have professional liability or general liability insurance coverage, are actually covered for claims arising out of their role in providing such advice. Many policies, unless they are specifically underwritten to cover a professional engaged in ERISA related activities, contain exclusions for ERISA related claims that would preclude coverage of claims involving ERISA governed plans. As a result, a plan sponsor cannot assume that all advisors to a plan actually have coverage for claims arising out of their activities, and the sponsor must instead actually examine their advisors’ insurance coverage to know whether or not this is the case.
The Duty to Disclose Possible Exposures When Applying for Insurance Policies
Why do we have insurance coverage lawyers, and why, as Mark Mayerson has written, has “insurance-coverage law . . . developed over the last 20 years into a rarefied specialty practice”? Because when lawyers who don’t know their way around the subject get involved with insurance coverage, problems just pile up. A case out of the New Jersey Supreme Court reflects this dynamic. In that case, as this article describes it, a law firm retained to represent a business in a dispute won a judgment that was then overturned because the lawyers had blown the statute of limitations. But that wasn’t the worst part for the attorneys who lost that case; they then turned out to not have coverage for the resulting legal malpractice claim, because they had failed to disclose the potential error and potential claim on their application for professional liability insurance. Now even if they had disclosed it, they may well not have been covered for it, as the insurer may have refused to issue a policy without excluding any claims that might arise out of the disclosed events. However, one will never know, because what we do know for sure is that a failure to disclose on an application a potential claim is a quick way to lose coverage. Indeed, as the article sums up:
[T]he ruling sends a clear signal to attorneys: Be forthcoming, and err on the side of discretion, when applying for malpractice insurance. "Law firms have to disclose in the application any potential error they've committed," [one of the lawyers involved] says. "Here, they knew there was a likelihood a complaint was going to be filed. If there is any basis to believe you have breached a duty, there is a good chance you're going to be sued." The insured's lawyer . . . does not disagree in principle. "It is in an attorney's best interest to disclose to its carrier any possible mistake because then the carrier is responsible," he says. "You're putting the carrier on notice."
Legal Malpractice and Professional Liability Policies
If an attorney gets duped into executing a check and distributing its proceeds as part of an elaborate fraudulent check scheme - an act which will then of course inevitably get him sued - is he covered for that act under his professional liability coverage? A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has astutely, and on the correct reasoning, found that the answer is no. As I have discussed in other posts, Massachusetts law is clear that professional liability coverages are subject to what is in effect an extracontractual limitation on coverage, namely a requirement that the loss arise out of the unique specialty of the type of professional covered by the policy, and not out of routine practices that, one, did not require that specialized expertise and, two, could have occurred in any type of business. Judges and courts sometimes get fooled by this, and don’t recognize that this limitation exists because it is not expressly stated in the insuring agreement of professional liability policies. However, rationally, that restriction is clearly inherent in the simple statement in professional liability insuring agreements that claims arising out of the insured’s professional services are what is covered; the absence of this restriction would transform a professional services policy into an extraordinarily broad general liability policy covering practically anything and everything that happens in a professional services business.
The trial judge in this case didn’t get that wrong, granting summary judgment to the insurer, and finding, in part, that:
Massachusetts courts have interpreted a professional act to be 'one arising out of a vocation, calling, occupation, or employment involving specialized knowledge, labor, or skill, and the labor or skill involved is predominately mental or intellectual, rather than physical or manual. ...' ... When deciding whether an act is 'professional' in nature, the court has 'look[ed] not to the title or character of the party performing the act, but to the act itself.' ... Therefore, tasks a professional performs are not covered by professional liability insurance if they are '"ordinary" activities "achievable by those lacking the relevant professional training and expertise."' ...
Although there is no appellate decision dealing with the precise factual situation involved with this case, there are decisions to assist the court in understanding the nature of professional legal services and its boundaries. . .
With the guidance of these cases, this court finds that Wolsky's actions that amounted to the receipt, endorsement, and deposit of a check, and the distribution of funds did not require a lawyer's specialized knowledge, labor, or skill, i.e., they were not professional services. ... Wolsky was merely an essential pawn in an elaborate fraudulent check scheme, a role which did not call upon his professional skills but rather required Wolsky's blind trust to act as a facilitator to convert a check to cash.
The case is Fleet National Bank v. Wolsky v. American Guaranty & Liability Insurance Company (Civil Action No. 04-CV-5075), and you can find more on it, including a source to order the entire opinion, here.
OneBeacon and Media Professional Liability Coverage
Permalink | This is an interesting little article - really a press release from OneBeacon about a new product the company is marketing - about a suite of insurance products targeted at the needs of small to mid-size media companies. Among the product’s constituent parts is media professional liability coverage, which the article points out includes coverage for “defamation, invasion of privacy, copyright and trademark infringement, emotional distress, trespass, and misappropriation of likeness.”
There are a few things that are interesting about this. The first is that I have long thought - and have written, such as here - that coverage for copyright, defamation, invasion of privacy and similar exposures is worth buying for any company that may face such claims. Media companies, in particular and quite obviously, face this exposure every day. These cases are almost never, in my experience, easy to get rid of cheap if you are a defendant. Sometimes this is because liability is clear - for instance, there is so much similarity between the challenged publication and the publication written by the plaintiff that a finding of copyright infringement is almost certain - and the plaintiff, as a result, has little motivation to compromise the damages and has, instead, a motivation to exaggerate them. Sometimes it is because the plaintiff has a legitimate claim to recover attorney’s fees if it prevails, so there is a motivation to keep on going in the hope of recovering the attorney’s fees the plaintiff has already expended. I could bore you for an hour listing these types of variables that can make these types of cases hard to settle. But the point is that they often are, which makes them expensive to defend, even under the best of circumstances. Big companies obviously don’t have to worry that much about those costs, but smaller companies, who are the target market for this product, clearly do. And that is why this is a market that would be well served by this product.
The second thing I wanted to mention is the wonders of marketing. The media professional liability coverage included in this suite, at least as described in the article, is essentially the old standby advertising injury coverage that has long been sold as an accompaniment to general liability policies. This is a neat rejiggering of that product to target a particular niche market.
Professional Liability Coverage for Medical Billing Errors
There is an interesting story out of Massachusetts concerning a $1.9 million settlement entered into by a physician related to allegedly fraudulent medical billing; the article is at http://www.masslawyersweekly.com/ (subscription required for the full article). In fairness and to be accurate, note that the physician denies the charges and has stated that the real problem was confusion on the part of federal officials over how certain unique services should actually be coded. I have no idea who is right, but what interests me is whether there is coverage for it under the doctor's professional liability policy. Massachusetts has well developed case law, in both the state and federal courts, concerning the limits of professional liability coverage. The case law establishes that such coverage encompasses only claims that require the expertise of the covered professional, and not those that, although part of that professional's business operations, would be common to both the professional's practice and any other business. You can review an article I published on this issue here, Download file.
In this, Massachusetts law is consistent with that of most jurisdictions. Where Massachusetts case law departs somewhat from other jurisdictions is in the specificity of its case law; both the state and federal courts have written extensively on this issue, including cases to the effect that billing and similar "back room" operations are not part of professional services for purposes of professional liability coverage (or for that matter, for purposes of professional liability exclusions).
What is interesting about this settlement, however, is the question of whether that would be different in this instance. Pure overbilling, or intentional fraud (I do not know what was the actual cause of the alleged overbilling in this case, and the physician's position is that this was not the case in this matter) presumably would fall within the province of prior decisions precluding coverage under professional liability insuring agreements for such "back office" operations. But it would seem to me the case may be different if the overbilling allegations stemmed, as the physician asserts, from judgment calls over how to code the procedure for billing purposes, because in that instance the physician's professional judgment may have been involved. A case can be made under the jurisprudence of this circuit that professional liability coverage should extend to the billing problems if they actually stem from decisions on coding that required the provider's expertise and professional judgment.
Again, I do not know what actually occurred in this case. Interesting grist for the mill, however, concerning a particular, and oft litigated, insurance coverage issue.