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THERE IS NO CAUSE OF ACTION FOR “INSTITUTIONAL BAD FAITH” (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (Non-Precedential)

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In this unpublished opinion, Pennsylvania’s Superior Court addressed whether “institutional bad faith” states a private cause of action under Pennsylvania law. Much like yesterday’s post, the Superior Court emphasized that Pennsylvania bad faith law requires focusing on the case and parties at hand, and not the insurer’s conduct toward other parties or its alleged universal practices. The court also addressed other issues concerning statutory bad faith and Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL), among other matters. In this post, we only address all the bad faith and  UTPCPL claims against the insurer.

Factual Background and Trial Court Rulings

The case begins with a home remodeler’s attempt to destroy a bee’s nest in one small section of a house. This unfortunate effort only caused larger problems, contaminating and damaging the house. The chain of misfortune continued when remediation efforts led to more damage, with the home allegedly becoming uninhabitable. At a minimum, all sides agreed some level of reconstruction work was now needed.

The homeowners’ insurer engaged a contractor to fix the original problem. The homeowners eventually challenged the quality of that contractor’s work, which they contended added to the damage. They eventually refused to allow that contractor on site, and unilaterally hired a second contractor to take over. Both the insured and insurer retained their own engineers, who disagreed on the scope of the damage and reconstruction work required.

The second contractor was owned by the insured husband’s parents. The husband himself was the second company’s project manager on the job. The trial court stated that the husband agreed with the position that he “negotiated an oral contract on behalf of … himself and his wife… with himself, as project manager of and on behalf of [the second contractor]” for the reconstruction work. The insurer and first contractor disputed the necessity and cost of the work carried out by the second contractor, as well as other costs.

The trial court ruled for the insurer on breach of warranty, emotional distress, UTPCPL, and bad faith claims, but in favor of the insureds on their breach of contract claim.

There is no Cause of Action in Pennsylvania for Institutional Bad Faith

The insureds argued that institutional bad faith could be the basis for asserting statutory bad faith. Under this theory, a claim can be based solely on an insurer’s policies, practices, and procedures as applied universally to all insureds. The present plaintiffs wanted to introduce evidence to support such institutionalized bad faith conduct. Both the trial and appellate courts rejected this theory.

The Superior Court emphasized that a bad faith action is limited to “the company’s conduct toward the insured asserting the claim.” Thus, “’bad faith claims are fact specific and depend on the conduct of the insurer vis-à-vis the insured.’” The Superior Court agreed with the trial court “that there is no separate cause of action of institutional bad faith.” It stated, that the bad faith statute “authorizes specified actions by the trial court ‘if the court finds that the insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured . . . ,’ not to the world at large.” (Court’s emphasis).

The Insurer did not Act in Bad Faith

  1. The policy and procedure manual/guideline arguments failed on the merits.

The Superior Court ruled that the trial court’s findings did not result in a refusal to consider evidence relating to the insurer’s conduct and practices. In fact, the insurer’s manuals, guidelines, and procedures were admitted as evidence, all of which were considered by the trial court. This evidence, however, was not considered as part of an institutional bad faith case. Rather, it was only relevant to determining if the insurer acted in bad faith toward the specific plaintiff-insureds, and not to the universe of all insureds.

In deciding the bad faith issue, when the trial court was presented with evidence of the insurer’s policies and procedures, it “did not find them to be improper when applied to the [insureds’] claim, although not a separate claim concerning ‘institutional bad faith.’” (Court’s emphasis) Thus, the actual plaintiffs could not make out a case for themselves on this evidence because they “failed to establish a nexus between [the insurer’s] business policies and the specific claims … asserted in support of bad faith.”

  1. The insureds could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard.

The trial court found the insurer had not acted in bad faith on other facts of record, and the Superior Court found no abuse of discretion in this ruling. Both courts emphasized the insured’s burden of proof is clear and convincing evidence. Thus, the trial court stated, “[i]cannot be reasonably said, given the facts and evidence adduced at trial, that [the insurer] lacked a reasonable basis for denying benefits and/or that [it] knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits…. Mere negligence or bad judgment in failing to pay a claim does not constitute bad faith. An insurer may always aggressively investigate and protect its interests. Particularly in light of the higher burden of proof, specifically the requirement that [insureds] must prove a bad faith claim by ‘clear and convincing’ evidence, the record in this case does not support the assertion of statutory bad faith….”

Specifically, the court focused on alleged (i) failures to pay engineering fees, (ii) delays in hiring engineers, (iii) unduly restricting the engineer’s ability to opine, and (iv) instructions that the first contractor and its engineer disregard building codes.

The insurer adduced evidence that (i) it paid engineering fees, (ii) its original decision not to hire an engineer was done based on information provided by the first contractor and a building code officer, (iii) it did agree to hire an engineer once the insureds provided their list of concerns, and (iv) the engineer opined the home was not uninhabitable. The insurer also put on evidence that its adjuster never told the first contractor to ignore the building code, but rather expected the contractor to comply with existing code requirements.

On these facts, the Superior Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding the insureds failed to meet the clear and convincing evidence standard.

The UTPCPL does not Apply to Claim Handling

Both the trial court and Superior Court concluded that the UTPCPL does not apply to insurer claim handling cases.

Date of Decision: January 14, 2020

Wenk v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 1284 WDA 2018, No. 1287 WDA 2018, No. 1288 WDA 2018, 2020 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 178 (Pa. Super. Ct. Jan. 14, 2020) (Lazarus, Olson, Shogan, JJ.) (non-precedential)

Our thanks to Daniel Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk blog for brining this case to our attention.

COMMON PLEAS JUDGE FINDS BAD FAITH FOR (1) RELYING ON UNWARRANTED RED FLAGS; (2) REACHING COVERAGE CONCLUSIONS UNSUPPORTED BY ACTUAL FACTS; (3) UNREASONABLE INTERPRETATION OF POLICY’S COVERAGE LANGUAGE; (4) DRAWING UNWARRANTED CONCLUSIONS FROM EXPERT REPORT; (5) FAILING TO INVESTIGATE FULLY; (6) VIOLATING UIPA (Common Pleas Lehigh)

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Today’s post summarizes Lehigh County Judge Melissa Pavlack’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in this breach of contract and bad faith case.

The Court’s Factual Findings

The insureds’ car was stolen. It was recovered, but with considerable damage. The insureds’ license plate was replaced with a stolen plate. The court found that the thieves never intended to return the vehicle. The insureds sought coverage based on the theft and vandalism, relying on policy language covering theft, larceny, vandalism, and malicious mischief.

The court found the insureds were not involved in any way with the theft or vandalism, nor was there any fraud on their part. The car was deemed a total loss, and valued at around $13,000. There were additional costs for hauling and storage, bringing the total claim to approximately $17,000.

The insurer denied the claim, citing insufficient evidence the car had been stolen. It refused to consider a separate vandalism claim because the damages arose out of an alleged theft. Thus, the insurer did not investigate the vandalism claim, and the denial letter never addressed the vandalism claim’s merits. The insurer never cited any policy exclusions applying to the vandalism claims. There was also no denial based on fraud.

The insurer’s investigation included a claim’s adjuster and supervisor, a fraud investigator, an appraiser, an appraisal report, an investigator and three investigator reports, an examination under oath over the telephone and in person, document requests, and a site visit to the loss location. At trial, the adjuster could not recall which of the insured’s statements under oath led to the claim denial.

The investigator reported to the carrier that one of the insureds was uncooperative because she did not bring unredacted tax returns and cell phone records to her examination under oath. Relying on this alleged lack of cooperation, the claims supervisor wrote to the insured that she had failed to cooperate by not bringing these tax returns and records, and failed to cooperate with the insurer’s investigation. However, the investigator was not aware that another of the insurer’s representatives had actually instructed the insured to bring redacted copies of the tax returns to the examination under oath, which she did.

As to other document issues allegedly evidencing a failure to cooperate, it was made clear during the examination under oath that the insured was a medical professional. She could not simply produce her phone records without violating HIPAA. She attempted to cooperate during the examination under oath by showing some messages in her phone from the days in question; but the adjuster was also concerned about HIPAA, and was hesitant to proceed with looking at her phone. Further, the court found the insured could not respond to the insurer’s request for the car purchase documents because these had been stolen from the glove compartment.

Moreover, in contrast to assertions that the insureds failed to cooperate, the court found that the insurer’s fraud investigator conceded the insureds had cooperated, and had provided documents requested in the manner requested.

As to the allegation there was insufficient evidence of theft, the insurer relied upon its expert report. The expert opined there was no forced entry, and that the car only could have been moved using a key. The court found (1) the insurance policy did not require forced entry as a condition precedent to establish theft, and (2) the car could be moved without a key. Further, the insurer’s fraud investigator testified that cars can be stolen without noticeable signs of forced entry, and there was other testimony to the same effect. The court also found that the fraud investigator never communicated with the claim adjuster that forced entry was not required to steal a car.

In sum, the court found these conclusions (forced entry and use of a key) were not reasonable bases to deny the very existence of a theft.

Most significantly, the expert only opined the car was not stolen by means of forced entry, and that a key had to have been used. Whether or not these conclusions were correct was irrelevant in the court’s view, because the expert never opined the car was not stolen. Thus, it was an error to make the leap that the car was not stolen, as it could have been stolen by some means other than forced entry, or could have been moved without a key.

There was Coverage for Theft, Vandalism, and Malicious Mischief

In addressing the breach of contract claim, the court looked at the policy’s plain language. The policy expressly covered theft, larceny, vandalism, and malicious mischief. There were no applicable exclusions in this case, so the court only had to interpret the coverage language.

The court looked at the dictionary definition of these terms, rather than any criminal statutes or case law defining vandalism, theft, etc. It concluded the facts of the case fell within these coverage terms, and the insureds claims were covered. As to bad faith, it was unreasonable to conclude the facts at hand did not fall within the policy’s plain and unambiguous language. Further, the court found the insurer’s conduct unreasonable in failing to consider coverage for vandalism and malicious mischief when denying the claims.

Court uses Unfair Insurance Practices Act and Unfair Claim Settlement Practices Regulations as Standards

The court cited (1) Unfair Claim Settlement Practice regulations (UCSP), 31 Pa. Code § 146.4, on obligations to fully disclose coverages and benefits; and (2) the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA), 40 Pa.S.A. § 1171.5(a)(10)(iv), on failing to reasonably explain a claim denial.

The court cited these UCSP and UIPA provisions in the context of the first bad faith prong, lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits. The court then observed the insurer had completely failed to consider the vandalism and malicious mischief claims covered under the policy. This supported the existence of bad faith, though it is not wholly clear whether the UCSP and UIPA violations were evidence of bad faith conduct, or were bad faith per se.

[We have previously posted on how courts treat alleged violations of UCSP regulations and the UIPA in bad faith cases, ranging from (1) their being completely outside the scope of consideration in determining bad faith, (2) as constituting potential evidence of bad faith, or (3) as amounting to statutory bad faith. It is not quite clear in the present case which of the latter two standards applied. Even without citing the UCSP or UIPA, however, it would seem the court’s finding that the insurer gave no regard to plainly covered vandalism claims was a basis for bad faith, regardless of any UCSP or UIPA violations.]

Erroneous Red Flags

The insurer justified its conduct by identifying certain “red flags” that caused legitimate doubt in the insureds veracity. When scrutinized, however, the court found these red flags were based on factual errors or erroneous assumptions.

  1. The insured was deemed uncooperative for failing to attend a unilaterally scheduled examination under oath. In fact, however, the court found the insured gave sufficient notice she could not attend on that date, and cooperated in rescheduling the examination under oath on another date, at which she appeared. She also had agreed to, and participated in, an examination over the phone.

As to the original date for the in-person examination, the court observed that the insurer knew in advance the insured was not going to appear on the first scheduled date, but still had its representatives appear to make a record against the insured for failing to appear.

  1. The insurer also asserted the insured was uncooperative because she provided redacted tax returns. As stated above, the insurer’s own representative had informed the insured in writing that certain redactions could be made. Further, when the insurer later requested an unredacted return, the insureds provided it.

  2. As to the alleged lack of cooperation on cell phone records, this was fully addressed during the examination under oath. As stated above, the insured was a medical professional and there were certain items on her phone records that could not be produced under HIPAA. That being said, she still offered to let the insurer’s representative look at her cell phone during the examination under oath, regarding non-HIPAA messages from the date the car was stolen. The adjuster was concerned about violating HIPAA, and was hesitant to do so.

  3. The insurer also deemed it a red flag that the loss came shortly after the policy’s purchase. This turned out to be an error. The court found the policy was purchased at least six months earlier. Another suspicion surrounded alleged excessive mileage on the car, which the court found was likewise not factually the case.

Failure to Fully Investigate the Red Flags

The court observed that while the insurer took the insured’s examination under oath, and conducted various investigations based on these alleged red flags, it failed to contact the police. Nor did the insurer follow up on evidence that drugs reportedly were found in the glove compartment. Though not expressly stated in the conclusions of law, this implies that the presence of drugs, under all the facts, favored the idea that strangers had stolen the car for nefarious purposes.

The Insurer Relied on its Expert Report for the Wrong Conclusion

For the court, the coverage issue concerning the insurer’s expert was simple: Was the car stolen? The issue was not: How was the car stolen?

The expert opined on two means by which the car was not stolen. The court found the expert never opined, however, that the car was not stolen. Moreover, the insurer never argued that the insureds faked a theft or lied about it.

The court pointed out that other means could have been used to steal the car, including non-intrusive and non-mechanical means. For example, after the car was recovered it was towed twice. The court found this demonstrated the car could be moved without forced entry and/or without a key.

Thus, the insurer’s reliance on the expert report to deny the fundamental existence of theft was unreasonable. The court found relying on the expert report to reach a conclusion (no theft) on which the report did not render an opinion, amounted to a knowing or reckless unreasonable denial of benefits, i.e. bad faith.

After finding bad faith on all the foregoing grounds, the court stated it would schedule a hearing on attorney’s fees, interest, and punitive damages.

Date of Decision: December 27, 2019

Unterberg v. Mercury Insurance Company of Florida, Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County Case No. 2016-C-806 (Dec. 27, 2019) (Pavlack, J.)

Thanks to Daniel Cummins of the excellent and extremely useful Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.

INSURED ADEQUATELY PLEADS BAD FAITH (Middle District)

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In this UIM breach of contract and bad faith case, the insured alleged a series of physical injuries after being rear-ended at a red light. The insurer denied the UIM claim. The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith count on the basis that plaintiff only set forth conclusory boilerplate allegations without any supporting facts. Judge Munley disagreed and denied the motion.

In denying the motion, the court found the following sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss:

Plaintiff’s complaint pleads facts indicating that defendant’s actions were unreasonable. Plaintiff alleges that he was injured in an automobile accident that was covered by the insurance policy. He further asserts that he made a claim for benefits under the policy and defendant was dilatory and abusive in the handling of the claim. … Plaintiff additionally claims that defendant failed to reasonably and adequately investigate the claim and failed to reasonably evaluate or review the medical documents and/or photographs which were in its possession. … Defendant failed to make an honest, intelligent and objective settlement offer. … The defendant, thus, compelled plaintiff to file suit and engage in litigation, when a reasonable evaluation of the claim would have avoided suit. … Moreover, the defendant failed to follow its own manual with regard to the evaluation and payment of benefits-and even failed to pay the undisputed amount owed.

We have previously summarized Judge Munley’s recent decisions in Castillo and Deluca reaching similar results.

Date of Decision: November 19, 2019

Ranieli v. State Farm Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv1176, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 200380 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2019) (Munley, J.)

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

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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)

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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.)

COURT ACCEPTS GENERAL ALLEGATIONS OF BAD FAITH CONDUCT AS ADEQUATE, BASED ON APPARENTLY LIMITED PLEADING OF UNDERLYING FACTS CONCERNING SEVERITY OF HARM AND LENGTH OF TIME WITH NO PAYMENT (Western District)

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In this UIM breach of contract and bad faith case, the insureds were severely injured by a drunk driver. There was $600,000 in UIM coverage. No UIM payments were made for two years and the insured brought suit. The insurer moved to dismiss both counts.

The court first found the plaintiffs adequately pleaded a breach of the insurance contract. Next, the court drew inferences from the complaint’s averments in allowing the bad faith claim to proceed.

Specifically, plaintiffs pleaded severe injuries, through no fault of their own, that could not be fully compensated by the tortfeasor’s insurance. The complaint alleges that two years after the accident, the insurer “had failed to make any payments whatsoever to [the insureds] under the policy’s UIM coverage provision.” The insureds complied with the terms of the insurance policy at issue, giving reasonable notice of the accident and cooperating with the investigation.

“The complaint further alleges that, in addition to [the insurer’s] unreasonable delay in claims handling and its unreasonable failure to pay benefits, [the insurer] has failed to make a reasonable settlement offer, failed to reasonably and adequately investigate their claims, and failed to reasonably evaluate or review all pertinent documentation provided by the plaintiffs in support of their claim for UIM benefits. Accepting the facts alleged in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, we find that the plaintiffs have stated a plausible statutory bad faith claim….”

Date of Decision: October 24, 2019

Golden v. Brethren Mutual Insurance Company, U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-cv-02425, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 183691 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 24, 2019) (Saporito, M.J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM MAY PROCEED ON SOME CLAIMS HANDLING ISSUES, BUT OTHERS FAIL TO MAKE OUT A CASE (Western District)

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In this UIM bad faith case, Judge Conner, sitting in the Western District for this matter, closely analyzed the insurer’s investigation and claims handling in allowing the bad faith case to proceed. While agreeing with the carrier on a few distinct bad faith sub-issues, summary judgment was denied on the bad faith and breach of contract claims.

The insured was a tetraplegic prior to being hit by the tortfeasors’ vehicle. She made claims that there were new injuries and an exacerbation of her existing autonomic dysreflexia (AD). The carrier assigned a senior adjuster, and offered $20,000 on a $1 Million policy.

The key underlying fact is that a claims adjuster, with no medical training, was making critical decisions based on medical reports and records, or an absence thereof, without sufficiently consulting with doctors or someone with medical training who had experience with AD. The insured provided medical records and a report from her own doctor, a specialist in spinal cord injuries, setting out the basis of her claims of new injuries and the details of the exacerbated AD. The adjuster did have access to a consulting nurse, but the nurse had no AD experience, and her advice to obtain an IME allegedly was disregarded.

The adjuster never sought a statement under oath or obtained an IME, despite the consulting nurse’s recommendation to obtain an IME. There was a hot dispute of fact over whether the adjuster orally requested an IME from the insured’s attorney. After finally obtaining all medical records, the carrier offered $25,000 on the UIM claim, and the insured subsequently sued for breach of contract and bad faith. After litigation started, the carrier did obtain an IME. The carrier’s IME concluded that any AD symptoms were the result of preexisting injuries, and not the motor vehicle accident at issue.

Judge Conner gave close analysis to each distinct aspect of the insured’s bad faith claim.

  1. There must be a meaningful investigation.

An “insurance company must conduct a meaningful investigation, which may include an in-person interview, examination under oath, medical authorizations, and/or independent medical examinations.” “Both federal and Pennsylvania courts have indicated that failure to timely obtain an IME is probative of bad faith. … Common sense dictates that an IME is particularly insightful when the insured suffers from a rare, complex, and unique preexisting condition.”

Again, this was summary judgment, so the facts were taken in the insured’s favor as non-movant. That said, it is undisputed there was no pre-suit IME, that the insured had a long medical history, and that her expert doctor stated the accident exacerbated the AD. Moreover, the carrier’s own nursing consultant had recommended an IME, which advice was not followed. The court was concerned “that an adjuster with no medical training, tasked with evaluating a unique medical condition for an insured with a unique medical history, ignored a medical professional’s recommendation.” “Whether this decision was made in bad faith is an issue of genuine dispute, but [the insured] has put forth enough clear and convincing evidence that [the carrier’s] decision stemmed from recklessness rather than mere negligence.”

  1. The court rejects a “harmless error” argument.

The carrier argued that even if it improperly failed to take a pre-suit IME, it did so post-suit and its doctor found no claim existed because all symptoms were the result of a pre-existing condition. The court rejected this theory.

“To begin with, the court is unaware of a harmless error doctrine in Pennsylvania’s statutory bad-faith jurisprudence, and [the carrier] does not point to one. This argument also misconceives our inquiry. We must review the process by which [the carrier] made its decisions and determine whether they were supported by a reasonable basis. That process need not be ‘flawless,’ but it must be thorough enough to provide … a ‘reasonable basis’ for declining to settle [the] claim. Whether [the carrier] had a ‘reasonable basis’ during its investigation is in dispute because [it] did not seek a pre-suit IME. This, coupled with [the consulting nurse’s] disregarded recommendation that [the carrier] obtain an IME, is enough clear and convincing evidence to suggest that [the] settlement strategy lacked a reasonable basis. That [the] post-suit report confirms [the carrier’s] pre-suit determination does not change whether [the carrier] acted in bad faith in making that determination.”

  1. The insurer’s selecting a doctor to conduct an IME does not by itself show bias.

The insured asserted that the doctor selected to perform the IME was improperly biased. The court observed, “[b]ias in selecting a physician to conduct an IME may be relevant to bad faith, but a baseless allegation of bias alone will not suffice.” The insured did not bring out any evidence to support her bias claim. This naked assertion was not sufficient: “[I]t is clear that [the carrier] chose a physician who would not be independent but instead would be biased in his opinions regarding the extent of [the] alleged injuries and complaints as well as the cause of same.” That the doctor did “prior work for insurance companies does not alone establish unlawful bias or bad faith, and [the insured] does not cite on-point authority to show otherwise.”

  1. The court rejects the carrier’s argument that chose not to take the IME to avoid acting in bad faith.

In its final point on the IME issue, the court states: “In a last-ditch effort to combat [the insured’s] claim, [the carrier] maintains that an IME is not required because ‘insurers have been sued for bad faith when they require insureds submit to IME’s to obtain benefits.’ (Doc. 91 at 14 (citing Sayles v. Allstate Ins. Co., 260 F. Supp. 3d 427, 432 (M.D. Pa. 2017)). That may be true in a vacuum, but Sayles arose in a different context: there, the insurer demanded that the insured submit to an IME without seeking leave from the court in violation of Pennsylvania law. Sayles, 260 F. Supp. 3d at 432, 434-38. [The carrier] did not demand (or request) an IME here. Thus, Sayles is unhelpful.”

  1. A failure to consider relevant information could support a bad faith claim.

The court found that whether the carrier “adequately considered [the insured’s] complete medical profile is a material issue, and the evidence on this point is in genuine dispute.” The record did include the adjuster’s testimony that she considered the insured’s medical report, but relied more heavily on the actual medical records. The court stated: “At first blush this sounds reasonable. But [the adjuster] is not a medical professional and is not qualified to decide if a treating doctor’s narrative is irrelevant to an insured’s medical condition. No IME was conducted to place these records in context despite the suggestion of [the nursing consultant]—a medical professional. [The adjuster] may not have ignored facts per se, but it is difficult for an adjuster to favor some evidence (medical records) over others (medical reports) without professional expertise or the findings of an IME.” Thus, the insured had put on sufficient evidence to go forward on the argument that the insurer “based its settlement strategy on an incomplete medical picture.”

  1. The insured did not have a case for bad faith delay.

“To show bad-faith delay, the insured must establish ‘the delay is attributable to the defendant, that the defendant had no reasonable basis for the actions it undertook which resulted in the delay, and that the defendant knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that it had no reasonable basis to deny payment.’” The court observed that “[t]he process for resolving an insurance claim can be slow and frustrating … but a long claims-processing period does not constitute bad faith by itself….”

In this case, the insured cause some of the delay, “which leans against a finding of bad faith.” The court further observed the four-month time delay between the insured’s last contact with the carrier and filing suit, and rejected the argument of delays in connection with transmitting records, the timing of the IME report and the IME itself, and the carrier’s filing various motions in the case.

After finding the bad faith case could go forward, the court also denied the carrier’s summary judgment on the breach of contract claims, under the law of the case theory and because there was a dispute of fact over whether the AD exacerbation resulted from accident or pre-existing condition.

September 26, 2019

Baum v. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:16-CV-623, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164736 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 26, 2019) (Conner, J.)

1. POSSIBLE BAD FAITH FOR IMPROPER RESCISSION AND UNREASONABLY INADEQUATE INVESTIGATION, BUT 2. NO BAD FAITH FOR ALLEGED VIOLATIONS OF THE UIPA OR UCSP REGULATIONS, OR FOR ALLEGEDLY SWITCHING DENIAL THEORIES (Western District)

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The insured purchased various life insurance coverages for her son. She answered no to questions about whether he had any chronic health problems requiring periodic medical care. The terms chronic and periodic were undefined, as to, e.g., what kinds of illness fell under this question and what constituted “periodic” treatment. She answered no. Medical records subsequently showed the son some had gastric issues, lymph issues, and had been in rehab for marijuana dependency on two occasions.

The son was shot in the head and killed. The insurer denied coverage and invoked rescission. The insurer took the position that the mother had failed to disclose that he had chronic conditions that required periodic medical care.

The mother brought claims for breach of contract and bad faith. The insurer sought summary judgment on the bad faith claims. During discovery, the insurer took the position that the marijuana use, along with lymph and gastric problems met the definition of chronic illnesses needing periodic treatment, though later appeared to back off this position on the lymph and gastric allegations on periodic treatment grounds.

The court observed that the first bad faith element, concerning the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the insurer’s benefit denial, is objective. Thus, if a reasonable basis exists for an insurer’s decision, even if the insurer did not rely on that reason, there is no bad faith as a matter of law. It then described the other bad faith elements, and the burden of proof requiring clear and convincing evidence.

There were four types of bad faith claims at issue in the case:

  1. Refusal to pay insurance proceeds and rescission of the Policies.

The court found that the jury could conclude rescission was unreasonable in determining the son’s marijuana, lymph, and gastric allegations, were reasonable bases to rescind. The court further found that rescinding based on the lymph or gastric issues could go to the jury on intent/recklessness because there was apparently no periodic treatment in the record.

As to the marijuana issue, the mother explained to the insurer why she did not think the son’s stints in rehab constituted periodic treatment. Rescission required a knowing misrepresentation. A jury could find it reckless to conclude that this was a knowing misrepresentation on the mother’s part.

In sum, the bad faith claims could proceed on the rescission issue.

  1. Lack of investigation into the facts regarding the son’s alleged medical conditions.

The court allowed a bad faith claim for an unreasonably inadequate investigation to proceed as well. First, the court stated that an unreasonably inadequate investigation could be a separate ground for bad faith. It noted, however, while the law does require a thorough investigation, that investigation need not be flawless.

The insurer took the position that obtaining medical records was sufficient. The mother argued this was not enough. She set out six detailed steps the insurer failed to take in further drilling down beyond the medical records to get full answers. “While the Court agree[d] that not all the disputed facts identified by Plaintiff suggest bad faith, there is enough evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that Defendant failed to conduct a reasonable investigation into the factual circumstances underlying Plaintiff’s insurance claims.”

        3. Failure to comply with a Pennsylvania statute and regulation.

The mother also cited failure to comply with specific sections of the Unfair Insurance Practices Act and Unfair Claims Settlement Practices regulations in connection with the manner of rescission. Assuming arguendo these sections were applicable, the court found the insurer’s claim handling, in how it formally went about rescinding the policies, did not violate those sections.

Moreover, even assuming the UIPA and UCSP were violated, “a violation of the UIPA does not constitute per se bad faith under section 8371.” In this case, “the rescission letter’s language is not sufficient for a reasonable jury to find statutory bad faith, as the letter does not suggest unreasonable behavior on the part of Defendant and there is no evidence that Defendant knew of or recklessly disregarded any unreasonable behavior. At most, any violations of these provisions suggest that Defendant may have been negligent in the preparation of the rescission letter.”

        4.  No bad faith for alleged theory switching.

“Finally, Plaintiff argues that Defendant’s constantly changing bases for rescinding the Policies, as well as Defendant’s failure to reference gastroenteritis and lymphadenopathy in its affirmative defenses, are evidence of Defendant’s bad faith. The Court disagrees. There is no evidence that Defendant has constantly changed its basis for rescission—instead, Defendant has asserted since it sent the rescission letter that the rescission was based on misrepresentations about [the son’s] medical history in the applications. And the fact that the specific medical conditions that Defendant claims Plaintiff omitted have changed as the parties engaged in discovery, without more, is simply not evidence of bad faith.”

Thus, the motion was granted in part and denied in part.

Date of Decision: August 27, 2019

Horvath v. Globe Life & Accident Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Case No. 3:18-cv-84, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144933 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 27, 2019) (Gibson, J.)

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)

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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.)

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)

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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.)