Monthly Archive for August, 2019

POTPOURRI OF ISSUES ADDRESSED IN RESPONSE TO 11 COUNT COMPLAINT: (1) REMAND (2) GIST OF THE ACTION/ECONOMIC LOSS (3) UIPA; (4) DUTY OF GOOD FAITH AND FAIR DEALING; (5) UNFAIR TRADE PRACTICES AND CONSUMER PROTECTION LAW (6) DECLARATORY JUDGMENT ACTIONS BY BREACH OF CONTRACT PLAINTIFFS AND (7) ADEQUATELY PLEADING BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

In this Opinion, Eastern District Judge Tucker addresses a wide range of fundamental legal issues in the context of ruling on a motion to dismiss the insured’s 11 count complaint. The complaint includes not only breach of contract and bad faith claims, but tort claims, UIPA claims, declaratory judgment claims, and injunctive relief claims, all arising out of the alleged failure to pay on an insurance claim. The court also addresses a motion to remand after removal.

We do not address all of the issues Judge Tucker discusses, but highlight a few of the key principles adduced in her opinion. Her full opinion can be found here.

  1. Motion to remand denied.  (i) In determining the jurisdictional minimum amount-in-controversy, the court may consider the possibility of punitive damages under the bad faith statute. (ii) Diversity of citizenship can be established by showing the defendant is not a citizen of plaintiff’s state, just as well as by affirmatively showing the state(s) in which defendant is a citizen.

  2. The gist of the action doctrine and/or the economic loss doctrine will typically bar tort claims based on violations of an insurance contract.

  3. Violating the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA) (i) does not create a private right of action, and (ii) some courts hold it may not be used to establish violation of statutory bad faith.

As the court states: “Plaintiff’s claim is also barred to the extent that it relies on an alleged violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Insurance Practices Act (‘UIPA’) because the UIPA does not permit private recovery for a violation of its provisions. Plaintiff advances a claim for damages based, in part, on a theory that [the insurer] was negligent having breached duties imposed upon it by the UIPA, 40 Pa Const. Stat. Ann. § 1171.1, et seq. ‘Courts within the Third Circuit and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania continue to recognize [, however,] that the UIPA does not provide plaintiffs with a private cause of action.’ Tippett, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37513, 2015 WL 1345442 at *2 (quoting Weinberg v. Nationwide Cas. and Ins. Co., 949 F. Supp. 2d 588, 598 (E.D. Pa. 2013)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, in Tippett, the district court not only rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to state a separate claim under the UIPA, but also rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that proof of a UIPA violation might otherwise provide support for the plaintiff’s independent bad faith claim. Id. Plaintiff’s claim under the UIPA in this case is similarly barred.”

  1. Breach of the common law duty of good faith and fair dealing is subsumed in the breach of contract claim.

  2. The Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law applies to the sale of insurance policies, not claims handling.

As the court states: “While Plaintiff rightly notes that the ‘UTPCPL creates a private right of action in persons upon whom unfair methods of competition and/or unfair or deceptive acts or practices are employed and who, as a result, sustain an ascertainable loss,’ … Plaintiff fails to note that ‘the UTPCPL applies to the sale of an insurance policy [but] does not apply to the handling of insurance claims.’” Thus, as the alleged “wrongful conduct under the UTPCPL relate[s] solely to [the insurer’s] actions after the execution of the homeowner’s insurance policy,” the UTPCPL claim was dismissed.

  1. Declaratory judgment count not permitted in light of breach of contract claim.

The court states: “Federal courts routinely dismiss actions seeking declaratory judgment that, if entered, would be duplicative of a judgment on an underlying breach of contract claim.” Judge Tucker cites case law for the propositions that “granting a defendant’s motion to dismiss a plaintiff’s independent cause of action for declaratory judgment because the claim for declaratory judgment was duplicative of an underlying breach of contract claim,” and “dismissing a plaintiff’s duplicative claim for declaratory judgment in the face of an underlying breach of insurance contract claim and observing that ‘pursuant to discretionary declaratory judgment authority, district courts have dismissed declaratory judgment claims at the motion to dismiss stage when they duplicate breach of contract claims within the same action.’”

  1. The insured pleads a plausible bad faith claim.

Judge Tucker highlighted the following allegations in ruling that the bad faith claim could proceed:

i the insurer “attempted to close her insurance claim despite never having sent an adjuster or inspector to evaluate the damage to the Property.”;

ii the insurer “engaged in intentional ‘telephone tag’ to delay and deny Plaintiff coverage under the homeowner’s insurance policy.”;

iii. the insurer never “scheduled an inspection of the Property or otherwise [took] any action to deny or grant coverage under the homeowner’s insurance policy.”

Thus, at the end of the day, after reviewing all of the claims and motion to remand, the insured was allowed to proceed on the breach of contract and bad faith claims.

Date of Decision: August 13, 2019

Neri v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-0355, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136820 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 13, 2019) (Tucker, J.)

NO BAD FAITH WHERE NO BENEFIT IS DENIED (Philadelphia Federal)

In this property damage case, a policy endorsement placed defined limits on the scope of covered property damage. For example, the insured might have to pay for work covering 400 square feet to accomplish repairs needed to correct a problem, but the endorsement might only cover 200 square feet out of that 400. In this case, the insurer was only willing to pay for a portion of the insured’s overall repair costs, per the endorsement, but the insured wanted coverage for the entire amount. The insured brought breach of contract, bad faith, and unfair trade practices claims, and was now on his second amended complaint. The insurer moved to dismiss.

There is no breach of contract

Judge Kearney agreed that the insurer’s limited payment comported with the endorsement, and there was no breach of contract. He rejected the notion that the underlying policy could be kept in play, while striking off the endorsement on an unconscionability theory. Unconscionability is an affirmative defense and not a cause of action. Thus, the insured could not use this theory as a plaintiff. The court also rejected the insured’s reasonable expectations argument in refusing to rewrite the policy and strike the endorsement.

Although not pleaded in either the original complaint or two subsequent amendments, the insured argued against dismissal on the basis that a key word in the endorsement was ambiguous. Construing that ambiguity for the insured would purportedly allow for broader coverage. The court gave leave for another amendment, with the admonition to the insured and counsel that any amendment asserting this new position had to comply with Rule 11.

There is no actionable bad faith claim when there is no denial of a benefit

On the bad faith claim:

  1. The court could not infer the insurer lacked a reasonable basis to deny benefits, or acted with intent or reckless disregard in doing so. The insured himself alleged that benefits were not denied on the policy with the endorsement, only that the endorsement should be stripped from the policy, which would then allow additional benefits. As the court rejected that position, no benefits were denied under the policy as actually written.

The court noted that leave was given to replead the contract claim on the new ambiguity theory. Judge Kearney extended this possibility to re-pleading the bad faith on an ambiguity theory, if such a claim could be properly pleaded. He reminded the insured, however, that simply re-pleading the breach of contract on the basis of ambiguity “does not automatically equal statutory bad faith.”

  1. The court observed that “Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute does not extend to conduct unrelated to the denial of a claim for benefits.” To quote Judge Kearney at length:

Bad faith claims do not remedy an insurer’s allegedly insufficient performance of its contractual obligation or to indemnify losses. [citing Toy v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 593 Pa. 20, 928 A.2d 186, 198-200 (Pa. 2007).] Our Court of Appeals has affirmed “legislative intent. . . makes clear that the [bad faith] statute was intended specifically to cover the actions of insurance companies in the denial of benefits.” [citing Wise v. Am. Gen. Life Ins. Co., No. 02-3711, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4540, 2005 WL 670697 (E.D. Pa. Mar 22, 2005), aff’d, 459 F.3d 443 (3d Cir. 2006).] The General Assembly did not intend bad faith liability to extend to an insurer’s solicitation of customers or to regulate insurance policies generally. [Id.] For example, [the insured] argues [the insurer] acted in bad faith when it bargained with [the insured] for his insurance plan. We cannot recognize a bad faith claim for actions unrelated to the handling or denial of benefits. [The insured] also fails to plead a single fact evidencing delay or unreasonable treatment of his claim other than a disagreement over whether the Endorsement should govern. We cannot locate a fact suggesting a frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay the insurance proceeds. [The insured] does not plead a lack of good faith investigation into the facts or a failure to communicate. Instead, we must disregard conclusory allegations unsupported by facts, including the catch-all “acting unreasonably and unfairly.”

Finally, the court observed that any claim that the carrier interpreted an ambiguous policy term in bad faith would need many more facts than found in plaintiff’s current arguments.

Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) claim dismissed, and insured admonished as to nature of any future amendment

As to the putative deceptive conduct in including the endorsement, the court found that the complaint failed to allege intent or justifiable reliance. Thus, the catch-all UTPCPL deceptive practices claim failed, lacking these two necessary elements. Moreover, the alleged claim constitutes nonfeasance (failure to pay), rather than misfeasance, and thus fails on this additional ground.

While leave to amend remained on the table, the court admonished the insured that any new UTPCPL claim based on misfeasance would be scrutinized in light of existing judicial admissions indicating the claim is only one for nonfeasance.

Date of Decision: August 9, 2019

Boring v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-1833, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134242 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 9, 2019) (Kearney, J.)

 

NEW JERSEY FEDERAL COURT WOULD ALLOW PA BAD FAITH CLAIM TO PROCEED ON BASIS THAT INSURER KNEW ITS REPRESENTATIVE MISREPRESENTED THE POLICY’S SCOPE PRIOR TO POLICY BEING ISSUED (New Jersey Federal)

In this case, the insured alleged that promises made in selling a disability policy differed from the terms of the policy itself, to the insured’s detriment. Although a New Jersey federal action, the case involved Pennsylvania law, including the Pennsylvania bad faith statute. The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith count, and well as claims for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing and fraud.

First, the court quickly dismissed the separate claim for breach of good faith and fair dealing as subsumed in the breach of contract claim.

As to the bad faith claim, the insured asserted in his brief the carrier was aware of prior misrepresentations by its sales representative about the scope of coverage. Therefore, the insurer could not in good faith enforce the terms of the policy that limited coverage more narrowly that the sales representative’s promises, which had induced the insured to purchase the policy.

The factual basis of these allegations was that the insurer had been sued before on the same basis, and the sales representative’s deposition had been taken where he admitted his conduct.

This was only included in the insured’s briefing on a motion to dismiss. The complaint itself made no reference to the prior suit or the deposition; nor did the insured plead that the carrier was aware of the sales representative’s misstatement before issuing the policy. Thus, this count was dismissed without prejudice, presumably to replead with these allegations included in an amended complaint.

[Note: There is case law indicating that pre-suit misrepresentations are addressed via Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, whereas statutory bad faith is based on post-policy conduct in the handling and disposition of claims made against the policy. An example can be found here.]

The court refused to dismiss a separate fraud count on the gist of the action theory, finding that the fraudulent inducement preceded the contract; however, again, the facts were not adequately set forth and dismissal was without prejudice.

Date of Decision: August 8, 2019

Javie v. Mass. Cas. Ins. Co., U. S. District Court District of New Jersey Civil Action No. 18-2748, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133123 (D.N.J. Aug. 8, 2019) (Vazguez, J.)

TRIAL COURT ERRED GRANTING JUDGMENT ON FRAUD CLAIM TO VOID THE POLICY AT THE END OF PLAINTIFF’S CASE (New Jersey Appellate Division)

This case focuses on procedural issues and burdens of proof at trial, concerning whether the insured’s alleged fraud during an investigation was grounds to void a policy. At trial, the insured put on her case, and the carrier moved for involuntary dismissal (directed verdict) at the end of plaintiff’s case. The trial court granted judgment to the insurer, and the Appellate Division reversed.

The insured’s claim revolved around a fire loss. In the years before that loss, the insured had a relatively small roof claim, and a large water damage claim. During her testimony at trial, the insured described a meeting with the carrier’s investigator during the fire loss claim. The investigator was not merely a claim adjuster, but was actually a fraud unit investigator – unknown to the insured.

The insured admitted she denied there was any prior damage claim on the water loss, knowing this was not true. She felt it was not the investigator’s business and had nothing to do with the fire loss. The investigator had the insured’s application, which did not include either prior loss. This was part of the investigation, again unknown to the insured. The application itself, however, was never introduced into evidence at trial.

This interview during the claim process was not taken under oath. At her subsequent examination under oath, the insured did admit the two prior loss claims.

Both courts’ focus was on the misleading statement to the investigator about the water damage claim, rather than on the application’s not including the two losses. The two key elements were misrepresentation and materiality. The trial court found a material misrepresentation and voided the policy after plaintiff put on her case.

The Appellate Division disagreed, looking closely at the procedural setting and burdens of proof, in finding that the materiality element was not proved. The court especially noted the different burdens placed on defendant when dismissal is sought at the end of plaintiff’s case, rather than at the end of all parties’ cases.

Plaintiff’s case-in-chief did not include the original application, and the Appellate Division found there was insufficient evidence within plaintiff’s case itself to demonstrate how the water loss was relevant to the fire loss claim, or important in determining the insurer’s course of action. Moreover, the misrepresentation claim was an affirmative defense, with the insurer bearing the burden of proof. As the court stated:

“Accordingly, regardless of whether the information in an application not introduced at trial came from plaintiff or someone else, there was no factual basis for the [trial] judge to find that [the insured] ‘clearly tried to mislead [the investigator] as to something that seemed to justify what looked like misstatements in the application.’ Without the original insurance application or testimony from anyone at [the insurer] as to the nature of the investigation, the trial court clearly erred when it involuntary dismissed [the] suit based on her willful misrepresentation of material facts following her fire loss.”

Finally, the court observed that even though its ruling was based on a fundamental failure to prove materiality in the procedural circumstances at trial below, the insured would not be precluded from arguing at re-trial “a fact-finder could also consider whether [she] corrected her misstatements promptly in her examination under oath in considering their materiality.” July 30, 2019

Pokhan v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division DOCKET NO. A-3336-17T3, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1699, 2019 WL 3425917 (App. Div. July 30, 2019) (Accurso, Fuentes, JJ.)

AMENDED COMPLAINT STILL FAILS PLAUSIBILITY TEST WITHOUT REQUISITE PREDICATE FACTS (Philadelphia Federal)

The original bad faith claim in this property damage case was dismissed. A summary of that decision can be found here.

The dismissal was without prejudice, and the insured filed an amended bad faith claim. The insurer moved to dismiss, and obtained another dismissal. Again, however, the dismissal was without prejudice; though any new amendment was limited to  facts learned during discovery, as the sole basis to seek amendment.

Prior to its detailed analysis, the court quoted its earlier admonition to the insureds that “‘[i]f Plaintiffs are unable to allege plausible facts underlying their various claims of bad faith, then the Complaint should not be amended.’”

The court adhered to the following process in reviewing the complaint’s plausiblity: “(1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating whether all of the elements identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged.” In essence, “[a] plaintiff cannot merely say that an insurer acted unfairly, but instead must describe with specificity what was unfair.”

Despite amendment, the complaint still pleaded no facts “with respect to the timing of the investigation, the methods and procedures which Defendant employed during the investigation, and the length of the investigation.” Moreover, “[b]eyond the investigation-related allegations, all of the allegations in the original Complaint are simply restated [in the Amended Complaint], without any additional factual information, in the Amended Complaint.”

In addition to these “repackaged” allegations, there were purportedly 12 new allegations in the amended complaint. As with the first complaint, however, these were merely legal conclusions without “prerequisite factual support”.

By way of example, the insured alleged intentional and unreasonable delays in claim handling, but failed to allege any facts showing “(1) how Defendant’s action were purposeful, (2) what made Defendant’s actions unreasonable, or (3) the extent of Defendant’s ‘delay’ in adjusting their claim.” Similarly, “Plaintiffs also allege that Defendant acted in bad faith by failing to respond to their communications and requests for information. … But Plaintiffs never allege the dates of these communications, the number of communications in question, or the substance of these communications.”

In sum, the “added allegations are simply more of the same; they lack the required factual specificity and rely on impermissible legal conclusions….”

Leave to amend a second time was denied as “futile because Plaintiffs have already had an opportunity to cure the deficiencies of their bad faith claim in the original Complaint and have failed to do so. Given Plaintiffs’ failure to sufficiently amend their bad faith claim, the Court is satisfied that Plaintiffs are not entitled to a third proverbial bite of the apple.”

That being said, the court did allow for future amendment under limited circumstances. If new facts were uncovered during discovery that supported a bad faith claim, only then could the insureds file a motion for leave to amend. Thus, while the court would not permit another amendment at this time, dismissal was still without prejudice.

Date of Decision: August 6, 2019

MBMJ Props., LLC v. Millville Mut. Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 18-5071, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131217, 2019 WL 3562019 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 6, 2019) (Slomsky, J)

TWO THIRD CIRCUIT OPINIONS ON PA BAD FAITH STATUTE : (1) NO BAD FAITH WHERE NO DUTY TO DEFEND; (2) BAD FAITH CLAIM CAN GO FORWARD WHERE JURY COULD FIND: (A) CONTRACT COVERAGE BREACH AND (B) UNREASONABLE CONDUCT IN INTERPRETING POLICY AND DETERMINING LENGTH OF COVERAGE OBLIGATIONS (Third Circuit)

Case 1. No bad faith possible where no coverage or defense due.

In this title insurance case, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the insurer. A summary of the district court’s decision can be found here.

On the bad faith claim, after agreeing there was no coverage obligation and thus no duty to defend, the Third Circuit stated: “Moreover, since the [District] Court correctly concluded that [the insurer] had no duty to defend, there could be no bad faith claim against [the insurer].”

Date of Decision: July 26, 2019

631 N. Broad St. v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 18-3094, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 22319 (3d Cir July 26, 2019) (Fuentes, McKee, Schwartz, JJ.)

Case 2. After reversing on breach of contract claim, bad faith claim is found actionable based on insurer’s allegedly misrepresenting its contractual duties and failing to reasonably calculate length of its policy obligations, to the insureds’ detriment.        

In this case, the Third Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment to the insurer. A summary of the district court’s opinion can be found here.

The matter involved car rental rights under a policy, in the event the insureds’ vehicle was totaled. The Third Circuit reviewed the facts, and recited the following.

The insureds’ vehicle was totaled. Their policy provided up to 30 days for car rental, unless the carrier reasonably determined alternative transportation could be had earlier. However, in practice, the carrier’s conduct allegedly led the insureds to believe that the carrier could cut off the right to rent a car after only 5 days, in the carrier’s discretion, unless the rental was renewed for ensuing 5-day spans. Fearing they would lose their car rental through the carrier, the insureds entered a two-year car lease prematurely; leasing an inferior car due to the carrier’s pressuring them into thinking their rental would end. This, they claimed, resulted in damages to them both in paying more for the lease, and in obtaining a car that was worth less than their totaled vehicle.

The Third Circuit found this conduct arguably constituted a breach of the policy’s express 30-day provision, both in terms of: (1) the carrier’s internal guidelines to its adjusters in setting 5-day rental periods, and (2) the adjuster’s actual conduct toward the insureds in following the 5-day practice instead of the policy’s 30-day language.

The Third Circuit rejected the district court’s finding that the 5-day notices were merely mistakes and miscommunications rather than a breach, concluding this was a matter for the factfinder. The Third Circuit also concluded discrepancies between the 30-day language in the policy, and the 5-day rule used internally by the carrier, should go to the fact finder.

On the bad faith claim, the Third Circuit stated: “While the District Court focused on the fact that the [the insureds] technically received the full 30 days of coverage of the policy, the appropriate inquiry under §8371 is the “manner in which insurers discharge their duties of good faith and fair dealing during the pendency of an insurance claim, not whether the claim is eventually paid.”

The bad faith claim was based on alleged “misrepresentation of … benefits” in correspondence from the carrier, and in the carrier’s “failing to conduct the analysis needed to determine the amount of time its insureds reasonably required to replace their vehicle without terminating [rental] benefits as required by [the] insurance policy.”

In reversing summary judgment on the bad faith claim, the appellate court found that “[a] reasonable fact finder could conclude on this record that the manner in which the claim was handled evidenced … bad faith. However, that conclusion is not mandated by this evidence and there is therefore a genuine issue of material fact as to [the insurer’s] liability under 42 Pa C.S.A. § 8371.”

Date of Decision: August 2, 2019

Stechert v. Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Co., U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 18-2305, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 23243 (3d Cir. Aug. 2, 2019) (Fuentes, McKee, Roth, JJ.)

A CLOSE CALL, BUT FACTUAL CHRONOLOGY TIED TO ALLEGATIONS OF UNREASONABLE DELAY SET OUT PLAUSIBLE BAD FAITH CLAIM (Middle District)

Stating it was a close call, Middle District Magistrate Judge Carlson found the following well-pleaded allegations sufficient to set forth a plausible bad faith claim, and recommended denying a motion to dismiss without prejudice to later bringing a summary judgment motion. District Judge Mariani adopted this report and recommendation as the opinion of the court.

The Allegations

  1. Defendant … issued a policy of insurance No. K2495825 to Plaintiffs … covering their two automobiles ….

  2. Defendant … charged and collected a premium for underinsured motorist coverage on said policy.

  3. Plaintiffs … paid all premiums requested by Defendant….

  4. The same policy was in full force and effect [at the time of the auto accident at issue].

  5. On or about August 30, 2015, Plaintiff … was involved in a motor vehicle crash which directly caused him to sustain serious and severe life-threatening injuries some of which are permanent.

  6. On August 30, 2015, Plaintiff … was insured for underinsured coverage in the amount of $250,000.00, with stacking (two cars), by Defendant … under policy K2495828.

  7. As a result of the collision, Plaintiff … suffered severe and permanent injuries including, but not limited to, the following:

(a) neck sprain with severe pain and injuries to his cervical spine, more specifically identified as narrowing of disc space at the C4-C5, C5-C6 and C6-C7 with anterior and posterior osteophytes formation and narrowing of intervertebral foramina at the corresponding bilaterally with nerve root compression. Persistent multilevel degenerative spondylosis, degenerative bilateral facet edema at the C7-T1, bilateral foraminal stenosis at the C3-4, bilateral foraminal stenosis at the C4-5 and C5-6, bilateral foraminal stenosis with left foraminal disc protrusion at the C6-7, all of which pain radiates into his upper extremities;

(b) low back pain and injuries to his lumbar spine including degenerative disc disease with sharp shooting pain radiating into his left lower extremity and sciatica pain;

(c) radiculopathy and nerve injuries to the C8-T1 area;

(d) muscle spasms throughout his cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine;

(e) severe headaches;

(f) right hip pain;

(g) left ankle pain;

(h) right elbow pain; [*4]

(i) ongoing pain management, physical therapy and chiropractic treatment;

(j) ongoing and persistent pain aggravated by standing, sitting, walking, sexual activity, physical activities and elevating his arms;

(k) sleep disruption.

  1. Defendant .. was promptly notified of Plaintiff[’s] … injuries.

  2. As a result Defendant … after and only after litigation against its parent company … was initiated, began to pay and continues to pay medical payments to Plaintiff….

  3. As a result of the aforesaid incident, Plaintiff … was offered the policy limits by the operator of the 3rd party vehicle.

  4. Plaintiff … made a claim for underinsured motorist coverage with Defendant….

  5. Plaintiff …. submitted all the pertinent medical records and bills to Defendant…, indicating the serious physical and economic injuries that he sustained as a result of the crash.

  6. Defendant …refused payment to Plaintiff … of underinsured motorist benefits.

  7. Plaintiff … has performed everything required of him under the policy and is entitled to underinsured motorist benefits from Defendant….

  8. Defendant[‘s] … denial of underinsured motorist benefits was made without any reasonable basis of fact.

  9. Defendant … acted in bad faith in that it did not have a reasonable basis for denying underinsured motorist benefits under the policy and the Defendant … knew and/or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying that claim that Defendant:

(a) Failed to give equal consideration to paying the claim as to not paying the claim.

(b) Failed to objectively and fairly evaluate Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(c) Failed to raise a reasonable defense to not pay Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(d) Compelling Plaintiff … to institute arbitration to obtain underinsured motorist benefits;

(e) Defendant … engaged in dilatory and abusive claim’s handling;

(f) Unreasonably evaluating Plaintiff[‘s] … injuries and loss in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary;

(g) Failed to keep Plaintiff … fairly and adequately advised as to the status of the claim;

(h) Acting unreasonably and unfairly in response to Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(i) Failed to promptly provide a reasonable factual explanation of the basis for the denial of Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(j) Failed to conduct a fair and reasonable investigation and evaluation to Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(k) Defendant … violated the Unfair Claims Settlement Practice Act §146.5, 146.6, 146.7;

(l) Defendant … violated the Unfair Insurance Practice Act 40 P.S. §1171.5(a)(10) (ii) (iii) (iv) (v) (vi) (vii) (viii) (xi) (xii) (xiv).

The Analysis

The court found the complaint, “taken as a whole, goes beyond a mere boilerplate recital of the elements of the statute.” These allegations provided a factual chronology, and that “[despite providing [the insurer] with all pertinent medical records and bills, and fulfilling all of their policy obligations, the plaintiffs assert that [the insurer] has unreasonably refused to honor its policy obligations.” The complaint further intertwines these allegations with other bad faith averments, i.e., “unreasonable delay … in beginning to make medical payments”, and only making medical payments after suit was initiated against the insurer’s parent company, despite prompt notice of injuries well prior to suit.

While the averments are “spare,” they “go beyond the type of mere boilerplate allegations that courts have found to be too conclusory to sustain a bad faith claim.” Moreover, Magistrate Judge Carlson would not go beyond the pleadings to accept the insurer’s arguments for dismissal. The insurer asserted that the complaint should be interpreted as actually reflecting the insurer’s “prudent effort on its part to thoroughly examine and resolve a potentially meritless claim….” However, the court found “this argument invites us to go beyond the pleadings themselves and resolve essentially factual questions. This is a task which, in our view, may not be performed on consideration of a motion to dismiss, where we must simply assess the adequacy of the pleadings.”

Thus, the complaint could proceed, without prejudice to the insurer renewing its argument on summary judgment at the close of discovery.

Dates of Decision: July 19, 2019 and August 8, 2019

Vadella v. American States Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 3:19-CV-73, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121606 (M.D. Pa. July 19, 2019) (Carlson, M.J.) (Report and Recommendation), adopted in Vadellla v. American States Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 3:19-CV-73, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133764 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 8, 2019) (Mariani, J.)

ARTICLE ON PROPOSED NEW JERSEY INSURANCE FAIR CONDUCT ACT

Attached here is a link to an op-ed in the Newark Star-Ledger concerning New Jersey Senate Bill 2144, the “New Jersey Insurance Fair Conduct Act”, which we posted on in June 2018.

BAD FAITH CLAIM BIFURCATED AND STAYED; REQUEST TO DEPOSE INSURER’S COUNSEL QUASHED AS COVERAGE COUNSEL COMMUNICATING WITH INSURED IS COMMONPLACE AND DOES NOT MAKE COUNSEL A FACT WITNESS (Middle District)

In this first-party property damage case, Judge Conner addressed a motion to sever and stay a bad faith claim, as well as a motion for a protective order to quash the deposition of the carrier’s coverage counsel, who was also defending the breach of contract and bad faith action.

Motion to Sever and Stay Results in Bifurcation and Stay

Judge Conner first noted the difference between a Rule 21 motion to sever and stay, and a Rule 42 motion to bifurcate, observing that severance results in two separate and distinct actions, resulting in separate judgments. In this case, the insurer had moved to sever, but also included in its motion bifurcation as a form of relief.

“Severance is appropriate when the claims are ‘discrete and separate,’ each capable of resolution without dependence or effect on the other.” Factors include whether the two claims will require different evidentiary proof, judicial economy, and party prejudice. Judge Conner observed the wealth of case law addressing severance and bifurcation in insurance bad faith cases, but noting that the cases go both ways.

As in other cases, the insurer here argued, “irreparable prejudice from premature and potentially unnecessary disclosure of otherwise privileged information, inefficiency in litigating a secondary claim of bad faith that may be mooted by resolution of the coverage claim, and jury confusion and the potential loss of [the insurer’s] chosen counsel if the claims proceed together.”

  1. The court agreed that the breach of contract claim and bad faith claim are separate and distinct, with only minor overlap. For example, “[i]nformation concerning how [the insurer] investigated and evaluated the coverage claim, its claims-handling policies, and its attorney and personnel communications regarding denial of coverage … are simply immaterial to the issue of whether coverage is required under the policy.”

  2. The court also found the prejudice element favored the insurer’s position. The insurer focused on revealing its attorneys’ advice, opinions and strategy as providing an undue advantage in the insured’s contract case, where such information would not otherwise be discoverable. The insured focused on increased litigation expenses.

Judge Conner found “that although both parties have proffered potential prejudice, [the insurer’s] likely injury from denying separation of these claims outweighs the possible increased costs identified by [the insured]. As [the insurer] correctly notes, attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine are long-held, venerated components of our legal system. …. Such protections are not absolute, but they should not be disregarded lightly. We do not dismiss [the insured’s] legitimate concern regarding litigation costs, but ultimately conclude that this factor also favors [the insurer].”

  1. On the judicial economy element, the court rejected the notion that a ruling denying coverage would moot the bad faith claim; instead observing that a bad faith claim can exist independently of a coverage denial. [Note: As recently reiterated on this Blog, there is a longstanding issue as to whether statutory bad faith can be pursued in Pennsylvania simply for poor claims handling, if there is no benefit due under the policy.] The court also rejected the notion that the likelihood of more complex discovery disputes if both actions are litigated together requires severance.

After weighing all factors, Judge Conner chose to bifurcate, rather than sever; and to stay discovery on the bad faith claim. He recognized other courts had ruled differently in insurance bad faith cases, but highlighted the fact that each case is unique, that judges have broad discretion, and that in “this” case bifurcation and stay were warranted.

Court denies insured’s request to depose the insurer’s counsel

The insured sought to depose the insurer’s defense counsel in the case, who was also involved in the underlying coverage dispute. The insurer moved to quash the deposition. As the only pending case was now the breach of contract claim, Judge Conner viewed the issue through that prism.

The insured argued that counsel acted as a claim investigator, and was thus a fact witness. However, it offered no support for that position. It sought to depose counsel to obtain his: “’thoughts and reasoning as to why certain information was or was not included in the denial letters,’ knowledge of the cause and extent of the loss, and reasons why ‘certain information was disregarded” and the claim ultimately denied.’” The court found this “either irrelevant to the breach of contract claim, privileged, discoverable through other means, or a combination thereof.”

“Furthermore, that [the insurer’s counsel] authored letters denying coverage and setting forth [the insurer’s] reasons for its denial has no bearing on whether his deposition is necessary on the breach of contract claim. The practice of insurers consulting with their attorney regarding coverage and having their attorney communicate with the insured is quite commonplace and does not transform [coverage counsel] into a fact witness.”

The court further recognized the potential issue that the deposition could result in counsel’s disqualification. This was another reason to quash the deposition in connection with the contract claim. Judge Conner did leave the door open for the insured to reassert its request to depose counsel in the bad faith case.

Dated: July 25, 2019

McFarland, LP v. Harford Mutual Insurance Cos., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:18-CV-1664, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124038 (M.D. Pa. July 25, 2019) (Conner, J.)

Our thanks to Dan Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.

BAD FAITH CLAIM STATED WHERE INSURER TELLS INSURED TO “SUE US” AS A MEANS TO GET A MORE COMPLETE RECORD (Middle District)

In this case, Judge Caputo found plaintiff pleaded a plausible bad faith claim.

The case involved a fatal auto injury, and the issue of whether the deceased’s father, owner of the car at issue, had an applicable policy covering the accident. The other driver was uninsured.

The carrier asked for additional information after demand was made under the father’s policy. The father sent additional information, but the carrier told him to file a complaint, so it could take discovery. The father brought UM claims, as well as breach of contract and bad faith claims.

The complaint alleged the key issue was the deceased son’s residence. The father provided numerous documents showing the son resided with him; but the carrier still declined coverage on the basis that proof of residency was lacking.

Judge Caputo rejected the carrier’s argument that the complaint amounted to boilerplate conclusory allegations of bad faith. Rather, the complaint alleged sufficient “factual matter to withstand a 12(b)(6) motion.” Specifically, “the Complaint indicate[s] that [the insurer’s] coverage decision under the Policy hinged on a determination of whether [son] resided with [father] at the time of the accident. And, upon request, [father] alleges that he provided more than ample documentation to establish that both he and [his son] resided at [the father’s home] at that time.” This included copies of a driver’s license and tax forms.

Allegedly, instead of asking for more information to fill putative gaps in this information, the carrier told father “sue us”. “Although such conduct may ultimately not amount to bad faith, it is plausible based on the factual assertions in the Complaint that [the carrier] acted in reckless disregard of its obligations under the Policy.”

Date of Decision: July 22, 2019

Fuentes v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania NO. 19-CV-1111, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121362, 2019 WL 3288156 (M.D. Pa. July 22, 2019) (Caputo, J.)