Monthly Archive for December, 2019

COURT ADDRESSES “WHO IS AN INSURER” FOR BAD FAITH PURPOSES (Philadelphia Federal)

The plaintiff obtained insurance against its tenants failing to pay rent. It allegedly entered a relationship with two entities licensed to provide that insurance. One of those entities denied being an insurer, and moved to dismiss a bad faith claim against it.

The court observed:

“The Insurance Department Act of 1921, as amended, 40 P.S. § 221.3, defines ‘insurer’ as ‘any person who is doing, has done, purports to do, or is licensed to do an insurance business, and is or has been subject to the authority of . . . any insurance commissioner.'” … A party will be deemed to be “doing [an insurance] business” if it engages in any of the following acts:

(1) the issuance or delivery of contracts or certificates of insurance to persons resident in this Commonwealth;

(2) the solicitation of applications for such contracts, or other negotiations preliminary to the execution of such contracts;

(3) the collection of premiums, membership fees, assessments or other consideration for such contracts; or

(4) the transaction of matters subsequent to execution of such contracts and arising out of them.

The Complaint alleged the moving defendant acted in concert with another entity to provide plaintiff with insurance coverage. Specifically, plaintiff claims that both entities “entered into insurance policies pursuant to which Defendants agreed to ‘insure and protect … against tenants failing to pay rent or failing to vacate properties after defaulting on rent or the expiration of their lease.’” Plaintiff also “alleges that Defendants marketed the policies to [plaintiff], that [plaintiff] made thousands of dollars of premium payments under the policies, and that Defendants subsequently sent termination notices as to the policies.” Drawing all reasonable inferences, the complaint alleged the moving defendant solicited the application for an insurance contract, entered into an insurance contract, collected fees and premiums, and “’transact[ed] [in] matters subsequent to execution of [the] contracts and arising out of [it].’”

The moving defendant argued that its contracts with plaintiff do not use the word insurance, that in a related document the moving defendant itself is described as a “named insured,” and that a search of the Pennsylvania Insurance Department’s web site did not include the moving defendant as an insurer. The court rejected all of these arguments.

First, taking all reasonable inferences in plaintiff’s favor, the court found the language in the parties’ agreement sufficient to be considered an insurance agreement, in referencing payment of fees in return for coverage. Second, that the moving defendant was a “named insured” itself in relation to a reinsurer did not define the relationship between the moving defendant and plaintiff. Third, the moving defendant’s absence from the Pennsylvania Insurance Department’s website “does not preclude a reasonable inference that [it] was doing . . . [or] purport[ing] to do . . ., an insurance business and, in that capacity, was subject to the authority of . . . an[] insurance commissioner, even if the insurance commissioner was not actively exercising that authority.” (internal quotations omitted).

While the court denied the motion to dismiss, however, it did not rule on the ultimate issue of fact as to whether the moving defendant was an insurer for statutory bad faith purposes. It simply allowed the case to proceed.

On a final point, the court recognized, but did not resolve, the issue of whether the insuring agreement could expressly limit recovery of attorney’s fees and punitive damages that are otherwise expressly permitted by the bad faith statute.

Date of Decision: December 17, 2019

ABC Capital Invs., LLC v. Nationwide Rentsure, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 17-4980, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 216129 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 17, 2019) (Padova, J.)

DISAGREEMENT WITH AN EXPERT’S CONCLUSIONS, STANDING ALONE, IS NOT BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

The insured claimed lost wages resulting from an auto accident that reduced his ability to work full time. The insurer’s examining physician concluded the insured could work full time. The insurer denied the claim.

The insured brought suit. The insurer moved to dismiss all claims. The court analyzed each of the potential claims in the complaint, including a bad faith claim.

The court observed the two elements of statutory bad faith, i.e., a knowing or reckless decision to unreasonably deny benefits. The court also apparently included a showing of self-interest or ill will as a third element. [Per the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2017 Rancosky decision, however, a showing of self-interest or ill will may be evidence of the second bad faith element, but is not itself a third required element.]

The court found that the insured failed to set out a bad faith claim. The complaint alleged “the insurer relied on the findings of its own medical professional that [the insured] was able to return to work full time. While [the insured] might disagree with the doctor’s assessment, that does not mean his insurer acted without a reasonable basis when it denied [the] work loss benefits. Accordingly, the facts plead in the Complaint, without more, fail to show [the] insurer acted in bad faith when it denied his claim.”

The claims were dismissed without prejudice, with leave to amend.

Date of Decision: December 9, 2019

Elansari v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania Case No. 2:19-cv-03404-JDW, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211369, 2019 WL 6698209 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 9, 2019) (Wolson, J.)

A BAD FAITH PLAINTIFF MUST DESCRIBE WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, AND HOW THE ALLEGED BAD FAITH CONDUCT OCCURRED (Philadelphia Federal)

The insurer denied a property damage claim arising out of a leak in a home heating oil tank making the home uninhabitable. The insured brought suit for breach of contract and bad faith. The carrier moved to dismiss the bad faith claim on the basis it only set out bare bones allegations, and failed under the Twombly/Iqbal pleading standards. The court agreed, but gave the insured leave to amend her complaint.

The court observes that the insured’s complaint fails to “allege facts regarding the terms of her insurance policy, when she submitted a claim to [the insurer], the investigation that [the insurer] performed, or any communications between herself and [the insurer].” Despite the absence of any factual allegations, the insured still claims the inspection was substandard and hasty, the insurer refused to provide additional living expenses contrary to the policy, and her claim was “improperly denied.”

The litany of bare bones conclusory allegations failing to make out a claim includes assertions that the insurer “(1) sent a false denial letter; (2) failed to adequately investigate the loss before claiming it was not covered by the policy; (3) failed to pay a fair and reasonable amount for the claim; (4) asserted policy provisions without a reasonable basis; and (5) misrepresented facts and policy provisions.” These “threadbare recitals” did not allege, e.g., “how [the insurer] failed to investigate and evaluate the claim in a fair manner.”

The court refused to infer bad faith absent facts regarding the insured’s claim itself, and the insurer’s “accompanying investigation, negotiations, or communications in support of the contention that [its] conduct was unreasonable and reckless….” A plaintiff must “describe who, what, where, when, and how the alleged bad faith conduct occurred.”

The insured was given 14 days to amend her complaint.

Date of Decision: December 4, 2019

Biela v. Westfield Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION v. NO. 19-04383, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 209418 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 4, 2019) (Pappert, J.)

 

1. GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS IN DEFINING SCOPE OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH; 2. MOTION TO SEVER AND STAY DENIED; 3. COURT OUTLINES PROPER PRIVILEGE LOG AND CHALLENGE PROCESS (Middle District)

The good news: The court in Ferguson v. USAA General Indemnity takes on the issue of whether a statutory bad faith claim can survive if the insured’s breach of contract claim fails, and does an historical analysis of the statute and case law to reach a conclusion.

The bad news: The court does not address the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life. As we have observed over the years, Toy requires the denial of a benefit as a necessary predicate for statutory bad faith claims. Yet, numerous courts have applied pre-Toy case law, or cases rooted in pre-Toy case law, in holding that bad faith might exist outside of that context, e.g., solely for unfair claims handling or unreasonable failures to communicate. These courts have not directly addressed the argument that Toy apparently rejected that possibility, and that poor conduct may be evidence of bad faith, but not cognizable bad faith in itself where no benefit is denied.

We are not speaking of the situation where there is a contractually due benefit that the insurer belatedly pays. As Toy itself makes clear, there is little dispute that delay in paying a benefit can still support a bad faith case on the basis that this denies a benefit. Rather, we are speaking of the situation where there is no indemnity or defense of any kind contractually due, and the insurer prevails on the breach of contract count. Attached here is an article addressing Toy’s distinction between bad faith conduct that is necessary to make out a cognizable cause of action, and bad faith conduct that is only evidentiary in nature.

The Ferguson court, and similar cases, are concerned with dishonest claims handling and unreasonable delay even in cases where no coverage was ultimately due. They may want to inhibit poor conduct on the claims handling end that is driven by a presently unsubstantiated hope that there will be no coverage at the end of the day. In the court’s words, statutory bad faith exists to “generally regulate dishonest conduct by insurers….” This dishonest conduct still can be punished even if no coverage is due because “[h]olding otherwise could potentially result in insurers taking the gamble that a denial based on a cursory review will be rescued by a clever trial lawyer.”

Arguably, this interpretation runs counter to the Supreme Court’s decision in Toy, which concludes that there must be a denial of a benefit accompanying such poor claims handling. This reading of Toy implies that dishonest conduct where no coverage is due and no benefit denied is left to regulation by the Insurance Commissioner, not the courts.

In one of the few cases addressing this aspect of Toy, previously summarized on this Blog, another district court states:

Even assuming that the bad faith denial of the benefits claimed by plaintiff was properly alleged in the Complaint, plaintiff’s argument fails because plaintiff does not allege the denial of any benefits within the meaning of the statute. “‘[B]ad faith’ as it concern[s] allegations made by an insured against his insurer ha[s] acquired a particular meaning in the law.” Toy v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 593 Pa. 20, 928 A.2d 186, 199 (Pa. 2007). Courts in Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit have consistently held that “[a] plaintiff bringing a claim under [§ 8371] must demonstrate that an insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured through ‘any frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay proceeds of a policy.'” Wise v. Am. Gen. Life Ins. Co., 459 F.3d 443, 452 (3d Cir. 2006) (emphasis added); see also Nw. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Babayan, 430 F.3d 121, 137 (3d Cir. 2005); Toy, 593 Pa. at 41. None of the “benefits” that defendant allegedly denied plaintiff concern the refusal to pay proceeds under an insurance policy. To the contrary, plaintiff concedes that he “does not allege bad faith for refusal to pay benefits.”

Motion to sever claims and stay discovery denied

As stated, the Ferguson court determined a bad faith claim could proceed independently of the breach of contract claim, even if the breach of contract claim failed. The court reached this conclusion in the context of a motion to stay discovery and sever the breach of contract and bad faith claims. After reaching this conclusion, the court reviewed and denied the motion to sever and stay.

Even if conceptually distinct, the breach of contract and bad faith claims are “significantly intertwined from a practical perspective.” By way of example, the court states that both claims will involve discovery on “the nature of Plaintiffs’ injuries; and … what efforts did the insurer make to investigate Plaintiffs’ injuries.”

Trying to separate the two claims and stay discovery “would potentially create a discovery mess, requiring truncated depositions, interrogatories, and requests for production, only to have them all re-started following the conclusion of the first leg. This risk of judicial inefficiency warrants denial of Defendant’s request.” In sum, “Defendant’s request is, at root, asking the court to manipulate this case’s procedural framework in a way that will make litigation convenient for insurers, which the court will not do.”

This is how to handle the privilege and work product process

The court did observe there might still be legitimate attorney client privilege or work product issues. The court outlined how the parties should address this issue:

“This issue, however, is not properly before the court at this time. Defendant has not filed a protective order, nor has Plaintiff yet moved to compel. While Plaintiffs have requested the court conduct an in camera review of Defendant’s claims file, it will only do so if Plaintiffs show which parts of the claims file they may legally be entitled to. While Plaintiffs’ brief fails to do as much, they were unable to in part because Defendant has not provided an adequate privilege log.”

An adequate privilege log requires the party asserting the privilege to set forth sufficient facts as to each document at issue, and is further required to “establish each element of the privilege or immunity that is claimed. The focus is on the specific descriptive portion of the log, and not on conclusory invocations of the privilege or work-product rule.”

The court instructed the insurer “to provide an amended privilege log supplying some of the underlying factual bases for its privilege and work product claims—but not so much that it effectively discloses any such privileged information—so that Plaintiffs may raise, by brief, the parts of the privilege log they believe Defendant has failed to show are privileged.” After these steps are taken, the “court can then decide whether to conduct an in camera inspection of certain portions of the insurer’s claim file.”

Date of Decision: December 5, 2019

Ferguson v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 1:19-cv-401, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 209579 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 5, 2019) (Rambo, J.)

A LOW BUT REASONABLE ESTIMATE IS NOT BAD FAITH (Third Circuit)

The Third Circuit affirmed Middle District Judge Robert Mariani’s grant of summary judgment to the insurer on a bad faith claim. A summary of the trial court opinion can be found here.

In this UIM case, the tortfeasor paid $95,000 out of a $100,000 policy. The insurer initially valued the claim at $110,000 to $115,000 and offered $10,000 to settle (after deducting the $100,000 for the tortfeasor’s policy). The insured demanded the full $200,000 UIM policy limits, and filed suit when her demand was not met. The insurer upped its offer to $50,000, and the parties finally agreed to a high low arbitration ($200,000/$10,000). The arbitrator found the “total claim was worth $306,345, and calculated [the insurer’s] responsibility under the UIM policy to be $160,786.78.”

Insured’s Responses to Undisputed Facts Found Inadequate

First, the appeals court rejected the argument that the trial court improperly accepted certain of the insurer’s statements of undisputed fact as undisputed. The insured failed to set forth detailed facts contradicting the insurer’s specifically described undisputed facts. Rather, she generally denied the insurer’s undisputed facts and responded with facts that did not actually go to the issues presented in the insurer’s statements of fact. The Third Circuit found these failings amounted to admissions.

[This is a clear warning to parties opposing summary judgment that simply denying an alleged undisputed fact, without also setting out specific facts of record directly casting doubt on the putative undisputed facts, will result in an admission.]

Next, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s discretion to disregard an additional 289 counterstatements of fact that went beyond the insured’s responsive paragraphs to the insurer’s allegations of undisputed facts. Under local district court rules, the trial court had broad discretion in reviewing such supplementary counterstatements of fact, and determined they were outside the scope of the evidentiary issues presented in the insurer’s statement of undisputed facts.

Low but Reasonable Estimate not Bad Faith

Finally, the Third Circuit observed that “[w]hile successful bad faith claims do not need to show fraudulent behavior, negligence or bad judgment will not support a bad faith claim. … Nor will ‘a low but reasonable estimate of the insured’s losses.’”

The Third Circuit found “[t]he District Court properly applied this standard and granted summary judgment because the undisputed facts in the record show that [the insurer] had a reasonable basis for contesting [the insured’s] UIM claim. The record shows that (1) a large portion of [the insured’s] valuation of her claim was attributable to potential future surgery, (2) an independent medical examination disputed [her] claim that she needed the future surgery, (3) [she] had additional health coverage that would defray the cost of future surgery, and (4) [the carrier] believed [the insured] was exaggerating her symptoms in her deposition during the underlying UIM litigation.”

Even taking any remaining factual disputes in the insured’s favor, she could not demonstrate the absence of a reasonable basis to deny benefits. As there was a reasonable basis to deny benefits, the court did not have to address the second bad faith element of knowing or reckless disregard.

Date of Decision: November 27, 2019

Rau v. Allstate Fire & Casualty Insurance Co., U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 19-1078, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 35560 (3d Cir. Nov. 27, 2019) (Chagares, Jordan, Restrepo, JJ.)