Monthly Archive for November, 2019

CASE REMANDED BECAUSE NO PROOF TO A LEGAL CERTAINTY THAT PUNITIVE DAMAGES CLAIM WOULD TAKE THE CASE ABOVE $75,000 (Philadelphia Federal)

This UIM breach of contract and bad faith case was removed to federal court. The court sua sponte remanded the matter to state court. Significantly for this action, the tortfeasor driver was also named as a defendant.

The ad damnum clauses in the complaint’s various counts expressly state damages do not exceed $50,000. The bad faith count’s ad damnun clause specifically only seek an “’award of compensatory and punitive damages in an amount not in excess of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000).’” The civil cover sheet states the damages were not in excess of $50,000. Pennsylvania’s Rules provide compulsory arbitration for cases at or below $50,000.

Any federal jurisdiction would have to be based on (1) diversity of citizenship, and (2) a jurisdictional minimum amount-in-controversy above $75,000. The removing party bears the burden of proving these two jurisdictional elements, and doubts concerning jurisdiction are resolved in favor of remand. Because subject matter jurisdiction is involved, the court always has the power to review diversity jurisdiction, and can raise the issue sua sponte.

The court first ruled there was no diversity. The plaintiff insureds and defendant tortfeasor driver were all Pennsylvania citizens. The court rejected the notion that because the non-diverse tortfeasor defendant had not been served, the diverse insurer defendant could remove the case. [This is not the situation where diversity otherwise exists, and a non-forum defendant can remove because the forum defendant has not been served, as in the Third Circuit’s 2018 Encompass case.]

Second, the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum amount-in-controversy was not established. A plaintiff is the master of its own claim and may limit a claim so it falls below the jurisdictional threshold. In those circumstances “’a defendant seeking removal must prove to a legal certainty that plaintiff[s] can recover the jurisdictional amount.’” Three principles guide a court under these circumstances:

“(1) The party wishing to establish subject matter jurisdiction has the burden to prove to a legal certainty that the amount in controversy exceeds the statutory threshold;

(2) A plaintiff, if permitted by state laws, may limit her monetary claims to avoid the amount in controversy threshold; and

(3) Even if a plaintiff states that her claims fall below the threshold, this Court must look to see if the plaintiff’s actual monetary demands in the aggregate exceed the threshold, irrespective of whether the plaintiff states that the demands do not.”

The insurer failed to makes its case here. First, the insureds limited their demand below $50,000, putting themselves within the state court’s compulsory arbitration threshold. Eastern District courts have found that a plaintiff expressly limiting damages to $50,000, so as to fall within the compulsory arbitration limit, does not meet the $75,000 federal jurisdiction minimum.

The court looked further into whether the facts pleaded could result in more than $75,000 in damages, to a legal certainty. Here the UIM $15,000 policy limit fell well below $75,000, but the insurer argued punitive damages could bring the case above that sum, implying a punitive damages multiplier of four times compensatory damages. The court rejected that argument (1) because the insurer provided no basis why a multiplier of four would be applied and (2) a multiplier of four would bring the case up to $75,000, but federal jurisdiction requires the damages exceed $75,000.

In sum, the insurer could not prove to a legal certainty the amount in controversy would exceed $75,000.

Date of Decision: November 5, 2019

Mordecai v. Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania, CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-4351, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 192331 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 5, 2019) (Younge, J.)

GENERAL ALLEGATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE OR RECKLESSNESS SUFFICIENT, AND THE INSURER’S INTENT CAN BE PURSUED IN DISCOVERY (Middle District)

In his second bad faith opinion this week, Middle District Judge James Munley found bad faith adequately pleaded, and denied a motion to dismiss. The case involved an uninsured motorist claim. The insured suffered injuries, the insurer had $300,000 on its policy, and it appears the insurer refused to pay policy limits or make a payment meeting the insured’s demands.

First, on the reasonableness prong of the bad faith test, Judge Munley stated: “Plaintiff’s complaint pleads facts indicating that defendant’s actions were unreasonable. Plaintiff alleges that she was injured in an automobile accident that was covered by the insurance policy. … She notified defendant of the damages and provide it with sufficient documentation to support her claim, including updating records for ongoing medical treatment. … Defendant refused to make a reasonable offer of settlement despite plaintiff trying to work with it and despite the ‘mountain of evidence’ that she had provided. … ‘[D]espite the results of any investigations performed by [defendant] and the clear medical documentation supporting their claim for UM benefits, [defendant] has blatantly ignored the evidence, has done no further investigation and has simply denied [plaintiff] the recovery of appropriate UM benefits without explaining its reason for the denial. … These allegations are sufficiently specific to make out a claim for bad faith — at least with respect to the first prong, that defendant lacked a reasonable basis for denying the benefits at issue.”

The court rejected the argument that these allegations were akin to the failed pleadings in the Third Circuit’s 2012 Smith v. State Farm case. By contrast to the “much more general” allegations in Smith, and the exhibits attached to the Smith Complaint indicating there was no bad faith, the instant allegations “are much more specific and no exhibits indicate that the defendant acted in good faith.”

As to the second prong, i.e., whether the benefit denial was known to be unreasonable or its unreasonableness was recklessly disregarded, Judge Munley states: “Additionally, we find that plaintiff has sufficiently pled the second element of a bad faith claim, that is, that defendant knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis to deny the benefits. Plaintiff’s complaint makes a general allegation that defendant knew it had no basis to deny the claim. … We find that at this stage of the proceedings, such an allegation is sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. This element goes to the knowledge and state of mind of the defendant. Plaintiff will not be able to fully inquire into such matters until discovery occurs in the case. Accordingly, we find that the motion to dismiss should be denied.”

Date of Decision: November 6, 2019

Deluca v. Progressive Advanced Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv1661 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 6, 2019) (Munley, J.)

INSURED ADEQUATELY PLEADS BAD FAITH CLAIM AGAINST THIRD LAYER INSURER (Middle District)

There were three policy layers in this uninsured motorist case, concerning an opinion issued yesterday by Middle District Judge James Munley. Plaintiff alleged significant and permanent injuries, and she sought payment from the third layer insurer. This insurer had $60,000 in potential coverage and offered $1,000 to settle. The insured brought claims for breach of contract and bad faith.

The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim. Judge Munley denied the motion to dismiss, after examining the allegations against the two elements of statutory bad faith: (1) reasonableness of the insurer’s benefit denial and (2) knowing or reckless disregard of that denial’s unreasonable nature.

First, Judge Munley found the following allegations sufficient to set forth a claim that the settlement position and claims handling were unreasonable:

“An inadequate investigation by the insurance company may lead to a claim of bad faith. Smith v. Allstate Ins. Co., 904 F. Supp. 2d 515, 524 (W.D. Pa. 2012). Count II, of the complaint alleges that the defendant, inter alia, failed to properly investigate plaintiff’s claims, refused to pay plaintiff’s claims without conducting a prompt, reasonable investigation based upon all available information, denied the claim without conducting a completely independent review of plaintiff’s injuries and damages, and caused unreasonable delay in all aspects of the handling of plaintiff’s claim. … Plaintiff further avers that the defendant lacked a reasonable basis for underestimating the value of plaintiff’s UM claim and denying benefits. … We find that these factual allegations, which we must accept as true at this stage of the proceedings, are sufficient to meet the first element, that is, defendant lacked a reasonable basis to deny the benefits.”

Next, Judge Munley found the plaintiff met the knowing or reckless disregard element, concluding: “Plaintiff’s complaint makes a general allegation that defendant knew it had no basis to deny the claim. … We find that at this stage of the proceedings, such an allegation is sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. This element goes to the knowledge and state of mind of the defendant. Plaintiff will not be able to fully inquire into such matters until discovery occurs in the case. Accordingly, we find that the motion to dismiss should be denied.”

Date of Decision: November 4, 2019

Castillo v. Progressive Insurance, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv1628, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 190834 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 4, 2019) (Munley, J.)