Monthly Archive for December, 2020

INSURER COMPELLED TO PRODUCE “BEST PRACTICES” GUIDE (Western District)

In this case, Western District Magistrate Judge Kelly ordered production of the insurer’s claim handling guidelines.

The insurer denied UIM coverage, claiming the insureds waived their benefits. The carrier conceded its UIM waiver forms did not comply with Pennsylvania law, but took the position it still properly denied the claim under the circumstances.  The insureds sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The insured’s document requests sought “all written policies, claims and manuals, company manuals, operational guidelines, and/or any other policies, procedures, guidelines, manuals, and/or instructional/educational material pertaining to the handling of underinsured motorist claims ….” The insurer objected on the basis that these documents were confidential and proprietary, but that “if plaintiffs’ counsel will agree to sign a confidentiality order, [the insurer] will produce a copy of the Table of Contents for its claims manual and the plaintiffs can identify which chapter or chapters they believe they need to review.”

The carrier later stated there were no claim manuals, but rather the insurer maintained a “Best Practices” guide. The insurer produced part of its Best Practices guide, with redactions and removed pages, regarding liability, subrogation, and first party medical benefits. The redactions were not specifically identified and there was no privilege log.

The insured moved to compel greater production.

The carrier responded that “evidence of claims handling is irrelevant to this proceeding because the … claim was ‘never ‘handled’ since [the carrier] concluded there was nothing to handle.” It also took the position that neither liability nor the nature and extent of the injuries were in dispute, and the only issue was whether coverage was properly denied.

Separately, the carrier objected to production because such “production would otherwise cause it harm based on the nature of the plaintiffs’ counsel’s law firm; that is, a well-advertised law firm that represents ‘injured people.’” Apparently, the carrier was concerned that plaintiffs’ counsel would use its manual in future lawsuits, brought by different plaintiffs against the insurer.

In addressing the insureds’ motion to compel, the court first observed that claims manuals and training materials are “relevant [in bad faith cases] because the manuals contain instructions concerning procedures used by insurance company employees in handling UIM claims, like Plaintiffs’ claims herein. Though departures from established standards in handling a UIM claim would not alone establish bad faith, such information ‘is probative evidence for plaintiff to demonstrate bad faith.’”

The court rejected the insurer’s argument that it did not have to produce these materials because there had been no claim handling. “That [the insurer] failed to process the claim at all does not necessarily render guidelines as to how claims are ordinarily processed irrelevant and, at this stage of the proceedings, it cannot be said that the information sought is unrelated to the facts at issue.” The insureds had agreed that discovery could have some limits, and the insurer did not have to produce materials in the Best Practices guide “pertaining to rental vehicles, property damage, vehicle theft, and other sections unrelated to the evaluat[ion] and/or handling of an injury claim….”

Thus, the insureds “met their initial burden to establish the relevance of the requested material within the broad scope of permissible discovery and [the insurer] failed to adequately show that the information, limited to the handling of UIM claims for bodily injury, is irrelevant simply because it denied the claim.”

As to the second objection, the court found nothing in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure imposing a discovery “limitation based on a law firm’s advertising budget or the nature of its legal representation of injured persons….” Any concern that these materials might be used in some future litigation could be addressed with plaintiff’s counsel in negotiating and drafting an appropriate confidentiality agreement.

Thus, the insurer had to produce the Best Practices guide, with only the redactions and limitations described above.

Date of Decision: December 9, 2020

Keeler v. Esurance Insurance Services, Inc., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-271, 2020 WL 7239568 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 9, 2020) (Kelly, M.J.)

SIMPLE VALUATION DISPUTE CANNOT CREATE BAD FAITH; NO ACTIONABLE BAD FAITH AGAINST CLAIM HANDLER; MIXED RESULT UNDER UTPCPL (Philadelphia Federal)

The insured brought suit over a $500 valuation dispute.  The carrier valued the insured’s car at $2,500 ($3,000 less at $500 deductible), and repairs were estimated in excess of $3,000. The car being a total loss, the insurer offered $2,500, but the insured wanted $3,000.  This led to a 10 count complaint against the insurer and its claim handler. We only address the two bad faith counts against the insurer and/or the claim handler, and the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) claims against the insurer.

No statutory bad faith.

The court dismissed the statutory bad faith claim.  There were simply no allegations of fact that could support a plausible bad faith claim. The complaint itself showed the carrier appropriately investigated the claim, and gave a prompt damage assessment.  Plaintiff did not allege the repair cost estimate was incorrect, or the inspection faulty. There was no allegation that the insurer’s valuation was unreasonable. There was no claim denial, just a dispute over the sum due.

The court found this simply a “normal dispute” that did not amount to bad faith. “An insurer’s failure to honor its insured’s subjective value of his claim does not—without more—give rise to a bad faith claim.” The court, however, did allow leave to amend.

No common law bad faith against the insurer or the claim handler.

The insured brought common law bad faith claims against the insurer and claim handler. The court observed there is no tort common law bad faith cause of action; rather, in Pennsylvania common law bad faith is subsumed in the breach of contract claim. Thus, the common law claim against the insurer was dismissed with prejudice.

As to claim handler, Pennsylvania law (1) does not support a statutory bad faith claim against claim handlers; nor (2) does it recognize a bad faith claim in contract against adjusters (who are clearly not party to any contract). These claims were dismissed with prejudice.

A mixed result under the UTPCPL.

The court also dismissed one UTPCPL claim on the basis that it alleged poor claim handling, not deceptive inducement to enter the insurance contract.  However, the insured also alleged the carrier’s representative originally made false representations causing him to purchase the insurance in the first place.  This was sufficient to state a UTPCPL claim under its catch-all provision.

Date of Decision: December 14, 2020

Ke v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-1591, 2020 WL 7353892 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 14, 2020) (Pratter, J.)

NO BAD FAITH BASED ON: (1) COMPARISON OF OFFER AND RESERVES; (2) UIPA VIOLATIONS; (3) LOWER SETTLEMENT OFFER THAN INSURED DEMANDED; (4) FAILURE TO RAISE SETTLEMENT OFFER; (5) INSURED’S FAILURE TO NEGOTIATE; (6) TIMING OF PARTIAL PAYMENT; OR (7) CLAIM MANUAL (Western District)

In Western District Magistrate Judge Dodge’s May 2020 opinion in this case, the court allowed this UIM bad faith claim to survive a motion to dismiss. That decision is summarized here.  Her present opinion addresses the insurer’s summary judgment motion on bad faith.

The stipulated facts show, among other things, the insured’s injuries, that the tortfeasor’s carrier paid $50,000, that the insured demanded full UIM policy limits of $500,000, that the insurer set a $25,000 reserve and offered $10,000 to settle the claim fully, and that there was a dispute among medical experts about the scope of future treatment.  The record showed that the insurer’s claim adjustor reviewed new information from the insured on a number of occasions and found no basis to revise his damage analysis behind the $25,000 reserve figure.

After a considerable time period, the insured’s counsel did demand partial payment of the $10,000, saying this was undisputed, but never provided a full counter demand to the $10,000 offer because the course of medical treatment remained open.  The insurer eventually agreed to pay the $10,000, but the record appears ambiguous as to how each side interpreted the conditions of that payment.

Although the earlier motion to dismiss resulted in dismissal of claims asserting a private right of action under the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA), the insured asserted there were technical violations of the UIPA that could be considered in ruling on a statutory bad faith claim.

The court identified the following bad faith claims:

  1. The insurer allegedly “failed to re-evaluate the UIM claim when presented with new information and then make a higher offer despite raising the amount of its reserves.”

  2. The insurer “failed to make a timely partial payment of $10,000 even though that amount was undisputed.

  3. The insurer “violated the UIPA and its own claims-handling policies in at least two respects—by failing to notify [the insured] of its position that his alleged contributory negligence reduced the value of his claim, and failing to respond to an offer within ten days.”

Poor Judgment is Not Bad Faith

Magistrate Judge Dodge stated that “neither an insured’s disagreement with the amount offered on a UIM claim nor a citation to negligent mistakes made by the insurer in handling the claim is sufficient to demonstrate bad faith.”

She looked to Judge Hornak’s recent Stewart decision, summarized here, granting the insurer summary judgment “where plaintiff pedestrian suffered injuries that he valued at $2 million but the insurer investigated, set the value of the claim at $125,000, set reserves at $55,000 and offered $25,000” and Judge McVerry’s 2013 Schifino decision, summarized here, where a “$10,000 initial offer on UIM claim valued at $60,000 did not constitute bad faith and although [the insurer’s] conduct was ‘not free from criticism in its initial handling of the claim … this conduct is more indicative of poor judgment than bad faith.’”

Setting Aside Reserves Cannot be used as a Cudgel

Magistrate Judge Dodge also addressed the law concerning reserves, stating that “setting aside reserves does not amount to an admission of liability.” “Reserves are merely amounts set aside by insurers to cover potential future liabilities,” and “the setting of reserves is an estimate of an insurer’s exposure under a claim …[but] the court is reluctant to fashion a rule requiring an insurer to make an offer reflecting the reserve as soon as it is set.” Thus, “bad faith does not hinge on whether an offer is less than the reserves….”

The Alleged Failure to Increase an Offer is Not Bad Faith

The court rejected the claim that the insurer had raised reserves while failing to reevaluate the claim. In fact, the claim handler had not raised reserves even after receiving new information from the insured, but kept the reserves at the same figure after evaluating that new information.

The adjustor’s claims notes omitted $45,000 in medical expenses at two different dates, which were in his original evaluation. The insured claimed this demonstrated bad faith in evaluating the claims. The adjustor testified “that this was simply a mistake ‘because if you look at the doctor’s notes there’s no difference in what I already knew.’ Thus, this evidence suggests that [the] adjustor made an error when he recorded or updated information in his notes. This would amount to negligence, not bad faith. Importantly, it is undisputed that [the adjustor] concluded in each evaluation that a reserve setting of $25,000 was appropriate and his assessment of the potential value of the UIM claim did not change.”

Further, simply because the $10,000 offer was lower than the reserves did not prove bad faith, nor was it even “evidence of bad faith.” There also was no evidence the adjustor concluded the UIM claim’s value “was far in excess of the amount he set as a reserve or that his offer was unreasonable.”

The court distinguished the well-known Boneberger case on grounds that case was about intentionally devious claim handling practices used to create artificially low values. It was not about simply making offers that were much lower than the claimed value.

Magistrate Judge Dodge then discussed case law recognizing the principle that low but reasonable estimates cannot support bad faith claims. She looked to the Third Circuit’s 2019 Rau decision, summarized here. In addition, she looked to Judge Conti’s Katta opinion, summarized here, in observing factors weighing against bad faith, such as: the uncertainty of the claim’s value; “the offer was not unreasonably low because an initial offer below the alleged amount of loss does not constitute evidence of bad faith”; the insurer’s willingness to increase its offer and the insured’s refusal to negotiate down from a policy limit demand; and the insured’s failure to provide additional information to the insurer as to why its offer should be increased.

The court quoted Judge Conti at length: “It is troubling that plaintiff seeks to proceed with his bad faith claim despite having made no effort to engage in negotiations with defendant. Plaintiff was under no duty to negotiate, but courts have recognized that stonewalling negotiations is a relevant consideration in determining whether an insurer acted in bad faith. …. If plaintiff’s bad faith claim were to proceed, future plaintiffs could survive summary judgment on bad faith claims by simply filing suit after receiving an offer that the plaintiff believes is too low. The mere fact that defendant’s initial offer was lower than plaintiff’s unsubstantiated claim of lost wages, in absence of any other substantive evidence of bad faith, including unreasonable delay, intentional deception, or the like, is not sufficient to constitute clear and convincing evidence.”

In the present case, the insured never made a counter demand or attempted to negotiate after the $10,000 initial offer, and never came off of a policy limit demand.  Moreover, as set out above, the adjustor’s claim handling and claim evaluation were not unreasonable.

Partial Payment Issue not a Basis for Bad Faith

Magistrate Judge Dodge cited Third Circuit precedent that a failure to make partial payment could only reach the level of bad faith “where the evidence demonstrated that two conditions had been met. The first is that the insurance company conducted, or the insured requested but was denied, a separate assessment of some part of her claim (i.e., that there was an undisputed amount). The second is, at least until such a duty is clearly established in law (so that the duty is a known duty), that the insured made a request for partial payment.” She observed Pennsylvania’s Superior Court has followed this standard.

In the present case, there was no separate assessment of a partial claim, or any partial valuation carried out, resulting in an agreed upon undisputed partial sum due.  There was only an offer that the insured originally declined, but later demanded be paid without the insured admitting he either accepted or rejected that offer. Rather, the insured’s counsel asked the carrier to “issue a draft in the amount of the $10,000 as a partial payment of the UIM benefits until a counter can be made and the matter can be resolved in full.” Further, even when the $10,000 was paid, the parties disagreed over the meaning of the payment.

Magistrate Judge Dodge concluded the “agreement to pay to Plaintiffs the amount of its previous offer to settle the UIM claim does not represent evidence of bad faith.” While it might be generally correct to characterized the $10,000 as undisputed “there were no communications about this amount representing a separate assessment of some component of [the] claim.” Moreover, any delay in paying the $10,000 fell on the insured.

“Thus, to the extent that Plaintiffs continue to assert that the failure [] to make a more timely partial payment represents bad faith, any such claim fails as a matter of law. Plaintiffs cannot assert that [the insurer] acted in bad faith by offering to make a partial payment—which it was not required to do—and not offering it again sooner after Plaintiffs rejected it.”

UIPA Violations Cannot Form the Basis of a Bad Faith Claim

The parties agreed there is no private right of action under the UIPA. The insured, however, wanted to use UIPA violations as evidence of statutory bad faith. The court rejected that effort.

Magistrate Judge Dodge stated that since the seminal Terletsky opinion in 1994, “federal courts have uniformly rejected plaintiffs’ attempt to rely on UIPA violations to support bad faith claims.” Contrary to the insured’s arguments that some federal cases hold otherwise, she states that “for the past 26 years, case law in federal courts on this issue has been consistent.”  Magistrate Judge Dodge cites, among other cases, the Third Circuit’s opinion in Leach, Judge Gibson’s 2019 Horvath opinion, Judge Fisher’s 2014 Kelman decision (while sitting by designation in the Western District), Judge Kosik’s 2007 Oehlmann decision, and Judge Conti’s 2007 Loos opinion.

[Our May 2, 2019 post summarizes different approaches courts take in considering UIPA and Unfair Claim Settlement Practices regulations.]

No Bad Faith Based on Insurer’s Own Manuals

Magistrate Judge Dodge found this was not a case where the insurer’s manuals and guidelines recommended aggressive claims handling and litigation tactics to discourage an insured’s legitimate claims.  “In this case, there is no evidence in the record that [the insurer’s] manual promotes improper tactics or conduct; quite the contrary.”

The court also rejected the argument that the insurer acted in bad faith by violating its own claim handling policies. “The issue here is not whether [the insurer’s] claims handling policy is admissible, but whether it provides any support for Plaintiffs’ bad faith claim. It does not.”

In sum, partial summary judgment was granted on the bad faith claim.

Date of Decision:  December 10, 2020

Kleinz v. Unitrin Auto and Home Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:19-CV-01426, 2020 WL 7263548 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 10, 2020) (Dodge, M.J.)

BAD FAITH DAMAGES CONSIDERED IN MEETING JURISDICTIONAL MINIMUM AMOUNT IN CONTROVERSY (Western District)

The court dismissed this bad faith case for lack of diversity. Still, Judge Hornak opined on whether the plaintiff successfully alleged an amount in controversy above $75,000. The court found that, had there been complete diversity, it would have exercised jurisdiction.

“Courts ‘accept a party’s good faith allegation of the amount in controversy;’ however, when a defendant then challenges a plaintiff’s allegations of the amount in controversy, the plaintiff must provide ‘sufficient evidence’ to demonstrate the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.” Courts “will only dismiss the case for failure to sufficiently allege the amount in controversy requirement if ‘it is apparent, to a legal certainty, that the plaintiff cannot recover the amount claimed.’”

In this case, the insured sought breach of contract damages and damages for statutory bad faith and violation of the UTPCPL. Judge Hornak believed the claims were asserted in good faith. Under these circumstances, the court could “not conclude ‘to a legal certainty’ that Plaintiffs cannot recover an amount that exceeds the seventy five thousand dollar ($75,000.00) requirement.”

Date of Decision: December 8, 2020

Amato v. AAA Interinsurance Exchange of the Automobile Club, U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-00684, 2020 WL 7222769 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 8, 2020) (Hornak, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM DISMISSED FOR FAILURE TO PLEAD SUFFICIENT FACTS (THE FIVE Ws) TO ESTABLISH KNOWLEDGE OR RECKLESS DISREGARD (Philadelphia Federal)

This is the latest of many 2020 bad faith cases dismissed for failing to allege more than conclusory allegations. It is the second opinion this month finding a bad faith plaintiff failed to plead the necessary scientir element, even if unreasonableness in denying a benefit was alleged sufficiently.

In this UIM breach of contract and bad faith case, the insured alleged “that (1) she provided notice of the loss and her intent to pursue underinsured motorist benefits from [the insurer], (2) she demanded payment and submitted medical records to substantiate that demand, (3) [the insurer] failed to investigate thoroughly and fairly, (4) [the insurer] failed to communicate with [the insured], (5) [the insurer] has refused to pay the demand, and (6) as a result, [the insured] has and continues to suffer loss and damages.”

The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim.

“A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint. To provide a defendant with fair notice, a plaintiff must provide ‘more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.’ Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The Third Circuit instructs the reviewing court to conduct a two-part analysis. First, any legal conclusions are separated from the well-pleaded factual allegations and disregarded. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Second, the court determines whether the facts alleged establish a plausible claim for relief.”

The present complaint “fails to include specific facts regarding [the insurer’s] actions, including those which would support a bad faith claim. District courts in this circuit ‘have routinely dismissed bad faith claims reciting only ‘bare-bones’ conclusory allegations unsupported by facts sufficient to raise the claims to a level of plausibility.’”

In support, Judge Pratter cites Judge Pappert’s Elican decision, Judge Slomsky’s Toner decision, and Judge Buckwalter’s Pasqualino decision.

The insured failed to plead the “Five Ws”, i.e., “the who, what, where, when, why,” “and how [the insurer’s] conduct plausibly constitutes bad faith.” Even where cursory claims might be sufficient to plausibly plead an unreasonable benefit denial, there still have to be sufficient allegations for a court to “plausibly infer that the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded a lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits.” This split between adequately alleging unreasonableness and knowledge was present in, e.g., Pasqualino.

More recently, just one day before Judge Pratter’s opinion issued in this case, Judge Quiñones Alejandro issued her opinion in White v. Travelers, summarized earlier this week. Just as in Judge Pratter’s opinion and Pasqualino, Judge Quiñones Alejandro found the insured failed to get beyond conclusory allegations in asserting the insurer acted knowingly or recklessly in denying a benefit.

Finally, Judge Pratter cited to the Third Circuit’s Smith opinion, summarized here, reminding parties and the courts that “the mere ‘failure to immediately accede to a demand for the policy limit cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.’”

Judge Pratter did give the insured leave to amend, rather than dismissing the bad faith claim with prejudice.

Date of Decision:  December 8, 2020

Satterfield v. GEICO, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-1400, 2020 WL 7229763 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 8, 2020) (Pratter, J.)

INSURER CAN GO BEYOND FOUR CORNERS OF COMPLAINT TO DETERMINE IF A PERSON IS AN INSURED IN THE FIRST INSTANCE, WHEN DEFENDING BAD FAITH CASE (Third Circuit, Pennsylvania Law)

The Third Circuit addressed the central issue of whether the defendant was an insured, and how to analyze that factual issue in ruling on coverage and bad faith claims.

The named insured went with his girlfriend to a picnic, where they met up with the mother of the named insured’s child.  The girlfriend was also a named insured, but the mother was a stranger to the insurance contract. The mother decided to move the named insureds’ car, and struck plaintiff while driving the car. The injured plaintiff sued the two named insureds and the mother.

The carrier covered the named insureds, but took the position that the mother was not a permissive user and therefore was not an insured under the policy. The mother stipulated to a judgment and assigned her bad faith and breach of contract claims to the injured plaintiff, who sued the carrier.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the insurer, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

The Four Corners Rule does not Apply to Determining if a Party is an Insured for Duty to Defend Purposes

The Third Circuit first addressed the issue of whether the four corners rule encompasses determinations of whether a party is an insured in the first instance.

The issue has never been addressed by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

The insurer argued it could not be bad faith to take the position the mother was not an insured, even if the complaint indicated otherwise, because the law on the issue is unsettled.  The carrier asserted it could use extrinsic evidence to show the mother was not an insured, and denied coverage on that basis. The Third Circuit agreed that “because Pennsylvania courts have not ruled on this issue, [the insurer] did not act in bad faith after it ‘reasonably determined that [mother] was not an insured under the Policy.’”

On the merits of coverage itself, the court concluded “that, when the insurer determines a claim is outside the scope of the insurance policy before a suit is filed, it has no duty to defend because it has effectively ‘confine[d] the claim to a recovery that the policy [does] not cover.’” Here, the insurer investigated the claim, and determined the mother was not an insured because she was not a permissive user.  “After that determination, the four corners rule no longer applied. [The insurer] did not have a duty to defend, and its actions do not show bad faith.”

Bad Faith Investigation

The court then went on to examine whether a bad faith claim could be stated solely on the basis that the insurer’s investigation was conducted in bad faith.  As repeated on this blog ad naseum, there is a genuine issue as to whether there is an independent bad faith claim for poor investigation practices when no coverage is otherwise due. For example see this post from January 2020, this post from August 2020, and this post from earlier in August 2020. A close examination in this case, however, shows the lack of investigation bad faith claim is actually intertwined with the coverage issue. Thus, this is not a case where a party is trying to prove bad faith even though no coverage is due.

Treating investigation based bad faith as a separate cause of action, rather than merely evidence of bad faith, the court observed “[g]ood faith in this context requires that an insurance determination be ‘made diligently and accurately, pursuant to a good faith investigation into the facts’ that is ‘sufficiently thorough to provide [the insurer] with a reasonable foundation for its actions.’” The mother argued the record showed she had “implied permission” to use the car, and the carrier acted in bad faith by unreasonably failing to recognize she had implied permission. The court disagreed, finding no adequate evidence to defeat summary judgment on the issue.

No Common Law Bad Faith Claim

“Finally, although the standard for common law bad faith diverges from statutory bad faith … the common law action for bad faith is a contract claim. Thus, because [the mother] was not an insured, she was not party to the contract, and she had no common law contract claim to assign….”

Date of Decision: December 8, 2020

Myers v. Geico Cas. Co., U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 19-1108, 2020 WL 7230600 (3d Cir. Dec. 8, 2020) (Fisher, Restrepo, Roth, JJ.)

NO BAD FAITH FOR DENIAL OF FIRST PARTY MEDICAL BENEFITS (Western District)

In this first party medical benefits case, the insured generally alleged that the carrier breached the policy and failed to pay medical benefits on all the bills submitted. The insured further alleged that the carrier selected a biased doctor to carry out an independent medical peer review.

The court dismissed both the breach of contract and bad faith claims, with leave to amend.

On the breach of contact claim, the Complaint failed to include “the essential terms of that policy including those related to first party benefits.” The insured never averred “why her medical treatments at issue were a result of the … accident and were reasonable and necessary or why [the insurer’s] reliance on an ‘independent medical peer review’ to deny further medical benefits was unreasonable.”

Further, the Complaint did “not sufficiently plead what damages she seeks for [the insurer’s] alleged failure to pay first party benefits. While [the insurer] may have received bills for which payment was denied, the Complaint does not sufficiently specify the scope of services or amount of billing to identify the damages that [the insured] may be seeking in this case. Therefore, without sufficient pleading as to the elements of a breach of contract, [the insured] has not adequately pleaded a breach of contract claim.”

As to the bad faith claim, the complaint only alleged the insurer “failed to complete a prompt and thorough investigation, conducted an unfair and unreasonable investigation, failed to objectively and fairly evaluate her claim, and selected a peer review physician who was biased.” These generic allegations could not meet the Twombly/Iqbal standards. The insured “did not provide any factual support for these legal conclusions,” thus, lacking the specificity to survive the motion to dismiss.

The carrier also moved to dismiss the bad faith claim on the basis that the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law, 75 Pa.C.S. § 1797, preempts the bad faith statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371.

The court observed Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has not decided the issue of whether these statutes conflict and when/whether section 1797 preempts section 8371. “However, both the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the Third Circuit have predicted that the specific provisions of § 1797 preempt the general provisions of § 8371.” Pennsylvania’s federal district courts, however, split on the extent of preemption. “While courts agree that § 1797 generally preempts § 8371 in claims for first-party benefits under the MVFRL, ‘[a] robust majority of courts have held that a Section 8371 claim is not preempted when an insurer’s alleged malfeasance goes beyond the scope of Section 1797 or is obviously not amenable to resolution by the procedures set forth in Section 1797(b).’”

The insured did not plead sufficient facts to escape the preemption argument, just as she failed to plead sufficient facts on the breach of contract and bad faith claims.  So again, the claim was dismissed with leave to amend.

Date of Decision: December 7, 2020

Franks v. Nationwide Property & Casualty Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-01290-MJH, 2020 WL 7142687 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 7, 2020) (Horan, J.)

INSURED ADEQUATELY PLEADED UNREASONABLE DENIAL/DELAY, BUT NOT KNOWLEDGE OR RECKLESS DISREGARD; UIPA/UCSP NOT BASIS FOR BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

The insurer successfully moved to dismiss a UIM bad faith claim. While the plaintiff pleaded sufficient facts to show the insurer’s conduct was unreasonable, plaintiff failed to sufficiently plead that the insurer’s conduct was knowing or reckless.

Factual Background

The complaint alleged that after settling with the tortfeasor, the insured demanded UIM policy limits from her own carrier. The demand was in writing, accompanied by medical documents, and requested a response in 30 days. There was no response in 30 days, and the insured sent another demand on the 32nd day, and again a month after that.  The carrier’s adjuster responded to the third demand, on the day it was sent, that the carrier did not agree with plaintiff’s valuation of her injuries. On that same day, the insured also requested a copy of the policy, which the carrier initially refused to provide, but eventually sent almost six weeks later. The Insured made more requests for documents she alleges were relevant, but received no response.

She pleads she was never provided “with (1) a written explanation for the delay in investigating her UIM claim, (2) any indication of when a decision on the claim might be reached, or (3) any written explanation on the status of her claim.” Instead, over six months after her original demand, the insurer made a written demand to arbitrate the UIM claim.

Thus, the only two communications in the six-month period were to dispute valuation and demand arbitration.

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith. The carrier moved to arbitrate the UIM claim, and to dismiss the bad faith claim. The court granted the motion to arbitrate, and stayed the insured’s coverage claim pending arbitration.  It dismissed the bad faith claim.

Alleged Bases for Bad Faith

The insured alleged seven bases for her bad faith claim:

  1. “failing to promptly and reasonably determine the applicability of benefits;”

  2. “failing to pay benefits or settle her UIM claim;”

  3. “unreasonably delaying payment;”

  4. “failing to provide a copy of the … Policy when requested;”

  5. “failing to respond to multiple attempts at communication;”

  6. “unreasonably delaying evaluation of her claim;” and

  7. “violating the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (“UIPA”), 40 P.S. § 1171.1 et seq., and the Unfair Claims Settlement Practice (“UCSP”) Guidelines, 31 Pa. Code § 146.1 et seq., by failing to complete claim investigation within thirty days or, if unreasonable, to provide a written explanation and an expected date of completion every forty-five days thereafter.”

Bad Faith Standards and First Element of Bad Faith

The court observed two factors are needed to prove bad faith, as approved in Rancosky: the insured must show “(1) the insurer did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy and (2) that the insurer knew of or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis.” Judge Quiñones Alejandro stated that the first element covers a range of insurer conduct, such as “an insurer’s lack of good faith investigation or failure to communicate with the claimant regarding UIM claims[, … or] where the insurer delayed in handling the insured’s claim.”

The insured pleaded enough to support a plausible claim for unreasonable conduct in denying the claim. She “alleged that during the nearly six months between Plaintiff initially filing her UIM claim and [the insurer] making a written arbitration demand, Plaintiff’s counsel attempted to communicate … on at least five separate occasions for any update on the status of Plaintiff’s claim.” The insurer only responded once to dispute valuation and then three months later to demand arbitration.  This was enough to make out a claim for “unreasonable delay to investigate and settle Plaintiff’s claim.”

Second Element of Bad Faith Not Met

Proving knowledge or reckless disregard goes beyond mere negligence or poor judgment. Pleading “the mere existence of the delay itself is insufficient.” “Rather, a court must look to facts from which it can infer the defendant insurer ‘knew it had no reason to deny a claim; if [the] delay is attributable to the need to investigate further or even simple negligence, no bad faith has occurred.’” “In cases involving delay or failure to investigate or communicate, courts have found the length of the delay relevant to an inference of knowledge or reckless disregard.” Judge Quiñones Alejandro cited examples of cases with more than one and two year investigation delays.

She went on to find the insured did not plead a plausible claim of knowing or reckless disregard in denying or delaying payment. “In bad faith cases premised on an insurer’s delay and failure to communicate, courts have generally only inferred plausible knowledge or reckless disregard where the time periods of delay were much longer than six months.” She cites the Superior Court’s Grossi decision (one year delay), and Judge Leeson’s January 2020 Solano-Sanchez decision (two year delay) as other examples.

By contrast, “[h]ere, the time lapse before [the insurer] acted on Plaintiff’s claim by seeking arbitration was roughly six months. Further, nothing in Plaintiff’s complaint attributes this time period to [the insurer’s knowledge or reckless disregard of a reasonable basis for denying (or delaying) the claim, as opposed to ‘mere negligence’ or even an actual need to investigate. Without a longer delay more consistent with the delays established in the aforementioned precedent, or other factual allegations from which this Court could infer that Travelers acted with knowledge or reckless disregard of the unreasonableness of its actions, Plaintiff has not pled facts sufficient to plausibly allege the second element of her bad faith claim. Therefore, Plaintiff’s bad faith claim is dismissed.”

UIPA or UCSP Violations Cannot Form Basis for Bad Faith Claims

In addressing the bad faith claims, the Court observed, “alleged violations of the UIPA or UCSP cannot per se establish bad faith and have not been considered by Third Circuit courts.” Judge Quiñones Alejandro cites the Third Circuit’s decisions in Leach (“holding that ‘insofar as [plaintiff’s] claim for bad faith was based upon an alleged violation of the UIPA, it failed as a matter of law.’”), and Dinner v. U.S. Auto. Ass’n Cas. Ins. Co., 29 F. App’x 823, 827 (3d Cir. 2002) (holding that alleged UIPA or UCSP violations are not relevant in evaluating bad faith claims), as well as the Eastern District decision in Watson (“observing that, since the current bad faith standard was established in Terletsky, ‘courts in the [Third] circuit have … refused to consider UIPA violations as evidence of bad faith.’).”

Date of Decision: December 7, 2020

White v. Travelers Ins. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-2928, 2020 WL 7181217 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 7, 2020) (Quiñones Alejandro, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM CAN PROCEED WHERE THE POLICY TERMS WERE IN DISPUTE, AND NO PARTY COULD PRODUCE THE ORIGINAL POLICY (Western District)

This case involves a missing disability insurance policy.

The insured claimed he never received the original policy in 1990.  By the time of his disability claim 25 years later, the insurer likewise did not have an original, and could only produce “substitute” or “replica” policies.  The insured did have various application forms, which the court considered in ruling on the instant summary judgment motion.

Without going into painstaking detail here, the insured claimed he had a lifetime disability policy, and the carrier claimed the insured was only entitled to two years of payments after his disability.  The insured sued for breach of contract, tort, bad faith and violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL). The insurer moved for summary judgment on all counts.

The court first rejected the insurer’s breach of contract motion. While the substitute and/or replica policies could support the insurer’s position that it had paid all that was due, the insurer still had to prove that these policies accurately reflected the actual policy.  Thus, the insured’s testimony concerning the lifetime coverage he requested and was told he received vs. the insurer’s testimony that the substitute and/or replica policies were identical to the original policy all had to be decided by the trier of fact. Therefore, summary judgment on the contract action was denied. The court also considered the insured’s reasonable expectations under Tonkovic and Rempel to be open issues of fact.

As to the bad faith claim, the court first set out the pertinent legal principles and reiterated that the insured did not have to prove self-dealing or ill-will under Rancosky.  The court then denied the summary judgment motion on bad faith.

The insured raised numerous facts supporting bad faith.

  1. The insured alleged the carrier’s adjuster sarcastically commented that the insured claim conveniently fell just within the policy’s expiration limit.

  2. When asked for a copy of the policy, the insurer’s response was inconsistent. It first sent a “substitute policy” and then a “replica policy”. Both policies had missing pages and both were different than the policy he believed he had actually purchased.

  3. The insured contended the carrier’s “practice of not maintaining original copies of policies is further evidence of bad faith toward its insureds because this practice shifts the burden to the insureds to produce the terms of the policies.”

  4. The carrier “never informed [the insured] of the relevant limitations of the Policy, even when it offered the opportunity to purchase a new policy when he approached age 65.”

On the other hand, the carrier argued it had a reasonable basis to deny coverage, precluding bad faith.  The court responded that “while this may ultimately be proven, the Court cannot determine on a motion for summary judgment whether [the insurer] had a reasonable basis for its denial. Moreover, as [the insured] observes, [the insurer’s] behavior during the claim process constitutes evidence in support of his claim that it acted in bad faith.”

The court likewise denied summary judgment on the UTPCPL claim. The insured was successful in framing the argument as a case of deceptive conduct in issuing the policy, and not merely a failure to pay (which is not actionable under the UTPCPL).

The insured “indicated that representations were made by [the insurer’s] agent that he was purchasing a disability policy that provided ‘lifetime benefits up to age 65,’ that he justifiably relied on these representations and that he suffered damages because [the insurer] later took the position that the Policy did not provide this benefit because he did not become disabled until after he reached age 60. He has presented sufficient evidence to support a claim under the UTPCPL that must be weighed by the trier of fact.”

Summary judgment on the remaining claims was likewise denied.

Date of Decision: November 30, 2020

Falcon v. The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-404, 2020 WL 7027482, (W.D. Pa. Nov. 30, 2020) (Dodge, M.J.)

NO BAD FAITH FOR FAILURE TO LEARN ABOUT OTHER INSURANCE COVERAGE NOT DISCLOSED BY THE INSURED, OR IN ACTIVE CLAIM HANDLING THAT ONLY RESULTED IN A VALUATION DISPUTE (Western District)

The injured plaintiff had UIM insurance stacked for four vehicles. With stacking, this UIM coverage amounted to $60,000. The insured agreed to settle his claim for $50,000.

After that settlement, the plaintiff brought to the carrier’s attention that his stepson also had an auto policy with the same carrier. Plaintiff took the position that he was an insured under the stepson’s policy as they resided in the same household. If true, this would considerably increase potential UIM coverage from $60,000 to $160,000.

The stepson’s policy, however, listed a different home address. The stepfather told this carrier this was not accurate and an investigation into the stepson’s address ensued.  The carrier ultimately agreed to the additional $100,000 in available UIM coverage, but did not find a factual basis to increase the $50,000 paid to settle the case.

The Insurer’s Claim Handling Concerning Valuation

The court accepted the carrier’s factual recitations from the record. The insured twice agreed with the carrier on the claim’s value, only later to change course and increase his demand.  Instead of arguing over these reversals, the carrier “re-opened, re-evaluated and continued to negotiate with Plaintiff in a prompt and reasonable manner.” Moreover, the carrier did so “despite [the plaintiff’s] repeated refusal for over a year to participate in an SUO [statement under oath], and resistance to providing authorizations for the release of medical records, both of which are investigative tools to which [the insurer] is contractually entitled.”

The court also agreed the insured only gave the carrier “unreasonably small windows of time to respond to his demands, and refused to grant any extensions. … Nevertheless, [the insurer] continued to work with Plaintiff and to explain to him what [the insurer] needed, why [the insurer] needed it, and the basis for [its] determinations regarding his claim.”

The insurer obtained an independent medical examination, years after the injury, from which it concluded there was no basis to increase the settlement sum.  This evaluation was done at a time when the insured repeatedly said he was going in for additional surgery, and this was a basis to increase the claim’s value. As of the time the record was created in the case, however, this surgery had not taken place.

Judge Cercone stated the insurer “reasonably valued Plaintiffs UIM claim … and reasonably took the position that, if Plaintiff did in fact undergo surgery, the claim could be again be re-evaluated at that time.”

Alleged Failure to Determine the Stepson’s Address

The bad faith claim focused on the insurer’s alleged failure to disclose the insured was also covered under the stepson’s policy, as well as his own policy. This in turn boiled down to where the stepson actually resided at the time of the accident at issue, and what information the insurer had about the stepson’s residence in underwriting the stepson’s auto policy.

The record shows the stepson used his biological’s father’s home address in applying for insurance, not his stepfather’s address. Further, there was nothing on the face of the stepson’s underwriting file to indicate the stepson resided with plaintiff and not his biological father. After considerable investigation, the insurer did agree plaintiff was an insured under the stepson’s policy, thus accepting that the stepson in fact resided with plaintiff and not his biological father.  As stated above, however, the insurer refused to increase its settlement sum pending any actual additional surgery and an evaluation thereof.

Bad Faith Analysis

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith. The bad faith claim was based on the notion that it was the carrier, not the stepfather, that had a duty to disclose the additional $100,000 in coverage under the stepson’s policy. Thus, the plaintiff alleged the carrier misled the stepfather-insured into thinking there was only $60,000 in coverage, and this created a basis for a statutory bad faith recovery.

The insurer successfully moved for summary judgment on this bad faith claim.

Judge Cercone found “[t]he matter presented to defendant and this court falls far short on the showing needed to permit the finder of fact to arrive at a finding of bad faith.” The stepfather did nothing more than insinuate the carrier: (1) should have been more astute in determining the stepson’s actual address, (2) questioned the stepson on his address, (3) discovered inconsistencies in his address, which (4) “would have and should have detected that [stepson] lived with plaintiffs,” and then (5) would have necessarily resulted in the carrier realizing that the stepson’s policy should have been added to the stepfather’s applicable policy limits.

The court rejected this speculative narrative as falling far short of the kind of reckless or intentional misconduct needed to prove bad faith. The putative failure to uncover the extra $100,000 in coverage was at most negligent, and “an insurer’s mere negligence or bad judgment is not bad faith.”

Moreover, the court clearly did not believe there was even negligence in this case. Judge Cercone described plaintiff’s effort to convert the stepson’s underwriting history “into an unfounded and unreasonable basis for failing to detect [stepson’s] actual residence [as] nothing more than an attempt to insinuate an evidentiary basis for a finding of bad faith.” The plaintiff failed to identify any procedure the carrier failed to follow in concluding the stepson’s address to be with his biological father, which was the address submitted by the stepson and his biological father when originally obtaining the policy, and the address used on the policy.

The court described the case as actually boiling down to a valuation dispute.

As described above, the insurer’s claims handling was reasonable. It considered multiple demands to reevaluate the claim, even after settlement. It also agreed to the additional $100,000 in coverage limits “without meaningful delay once [stepson’s] actual address … was made known … and it verified…”

Judge Cercone states, “[a]gainst this backdrop it is rank speculation to infer that the [insurer’s] principals involved here engaged in a course of conduct with the intent to promote [the insurer’s] financial interest over its fiduciary obligations to plaintiffs, or that they recklessly pursued a course of conduct that had the ability to do so. As noted above, plaintiffs’ attempts to establish the lack of good faith fall woefully short of the mark and are insufficient.” Nothing was identified in the insurer’s claim handling that “even remotely raises a specter of self-dealing.”

Judge Cercone found “no evidence whatsoever that defendant did not investigate, valuate and negotiate with plaintiffs in good faith or stopped doing so during the adjustment process.”

In summing up, Judge Cercone states:

In short, plaintiffs have failed to advance sufficient evidence to permit a finding in their favor on a bad faith insurance practices claim. Plaintiffs’ evidence pertaining to defendant’s failure to uncover [stepson’s] policy during a search for household policy holders in conjunction with [plaintiff’s] UIM claim cannot bear the weight plaintiffs seek to have it shoulder. [The insurer] straightforwardly requested plaintiffs to identify the automobiles owed by any family member residing in their household. They did not identify or even allude to [stepson] and his motor vehicle when so requested. The evidence reflecting the address used in issuing [stepson’s] policy has every appearance of being consistent with honoring the representations and billing requests of its insureds and does not in any event supply clear and convincing evidence that defendant engaged in self-dealing or other similar measures in order to thwart its good faith obligations in adjusting and negotiating [plaintiff’s] UIM claim.”

Date of Decision: November 30, 2020

Bogats v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:18CV708, 2020 WL 7027480 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 30, 2020) (Cercone, J.)