Archive for the 'PA – Delay (Investigation/Claims handling)' Category

NO BAD FAITH POSSIBLE WHERE INSURER HAS ANY REASONABLE BASIS FOR ITS CONDUCT; UIPA AND UCSP REGULATIONS DO NOT CREATE BASIS FOR BAD FAITH CLAIMS (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM bad faith claim involved allegations of delayed investigation and settlement payment. The insurer moved for summary judgment, which Eastern District Judge Robreno granted.

The court observed that any reasonable basis to deny coverage defeats a bad faith claim, and consultation with counsel can establish a reasonable basis for the insurer’s actions. Negligence or poor judgment do not make out a bad faith case. Further, “[a]n insurer who investigates legitimate questions of insurance coverage is not acting in bad faith, and no insurer is required ‘to submerge its own interest in order that the insured’s interests may be made paramount.’”

Moreover, although bad faith can be proven through unreasonable delays in paying on a claim, “’a long period of time between demand and settlement does not, on its own, necessarily constitute bad faith.’” For example, if the insurer’s delay is tied to its need for further investigation, this is not bad faith.

Judge Robreno’s opinion sets forth a meticulous recitation of the factual history. The key factual issues were the length of time in reaching a settlement and the investigation into what portion of the insured’s injuries were attributable to the accident at issue vs. a separate auto accident in the preceding year.

In analyzing these facts, the court observed that the insureds’ principal argument was that the insurer took 15 months to make a settlement offer. However, the court found this was “not a per se violation of § 8371, and courts have found no bad faith in cases where insurers took the same length of time to evaluate a claim.” (Emphasis in original)

Drilling down with specific calendar calculations by relevant event, Judge Robreno found the length of time attributable to the insurer’s own delay was around 9 months. This was only half of the nearly 18-month period between the first petition to open a UIM file and filing suit. Further, during its investigation, the insurer had “repeatedly asked … for additional medical documentation, repeatedly communicated with Plaintiffs’ Counsel, and provided updates on the progress of the investigation. In the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, no reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that Defendant lacked any reasonable basis in its investigation.” (Emphasis in original)

UIPA and UCSP regulations not a basis for bad faith here

In a closing footnote Judge Robreno rejects the insureds’ effort to create a claim from the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA) or Unfair Claims Settlement Practices (UCSP) regulations.

He states, “While recognizing that they do not provide private causes of action, Plaintiff also cites to the Pennsylvania Unfair Insurance Practices Act, 40 Pa. C.S. § 1171, and the Pennsylvania Unfair Claims Settlement Practices regulations, 31 Pa. Code § 146, which each require prompt and reasonable responses from insurers in response to a claim, as further evidence of Defendant’s bad faith conduct. … However, ‘a violation of the UIPA or UCSP is not a per se violation of the bad faith standard.’ …. Further, both statutes apply to behavior performed with such recurrence as to signify a general business practice. See 31 Pa. Code § 146.1; 40 Pa. C.S. § 1171.5(a)(10). Because Plaintiffs only identify an isolated instance of Defendant’s alleged bad faith conduct in their argument that Defendant violated both statutes, neither is persuasive in showing Defendant lacked any reasonable basis in delaying Plaintiffs’ claim.” (Emphasis in original)

Date of Decision: March 19, 2020

Bernstein v. Geico Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-1899, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47798 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 19, 2020) (Robreno, J.)

 

(1) NO BAD FAITH WHERE COVERAGE LAW UNCERTAIN (2) BAD FAITH POSSIBLE FOR DELAY AND DENIAL OF ALLEGEDLY UNADDRESSED CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involved a highly disputed factual issue on coverage, with no clear guidance in the case law. The court denied summary judgment on the insured’s breach of contract claim, and rendered a split decision on the two bad faith claims.

The Close Coverage Call

Coverage existed if a roof was damaged by wind, allowing water to enter a building. The issue was whether a tarp could be considered part of a roof. The insurer denied coverage on the basis the tarp at issue was a temporary stopgap when blown off during a windstorm. The insured argued the tarp was sufficiently stable and integrated to be part of a roof system when it was blown off.

The court looked at local and national case law on when a tarp might be part of a more permanent structure, and thus part of a roof. The court found the issue highly fact-driven under this case law, and inappropriate for summary judgment. A jury had to decide the issue after hearing the disputed evidence and expert opinions.

The Bad Faith Claims

On the bad faith claims, the court stated that both denial of a benefit and/or improper investigative practices could constitute bad faith.

[As we have written on this Blog ad naseum, the idea that statutory bad faith covers anything other than benefit denials arguably runs contrary to Pennsylvania Supreme Court case law. In the 2007 Toy v. Metropolitan Life decision, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court strongly appears to state that only denial of a benefit creates a cognizable statutory bad faith action, whereas matters like poor claims handling would be evidence of bad faith. See this article.

A few months later, the Supreme Court seems to confirm this conclusion. In Ash v. Continental Insurance Company, citing Toy, the Supreme Court states, “The bad faith insurance statute, on the other hand, is concerned with ‘the duty of good faith and fair dealing in the parties’ contract and the manner by which an insurer discharge[s] its obligation of defense and indemnification in the third party claim context or its obligation to pay for a loss in the first party claim context.’” (Emphasis added)

While it appears highly likely Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court made clear 13 years ago that section 8371 is limited to claims for denying benefits, numerous subsequent opinions conclude that there can be other bases for statutory bad faith. These cases typically do not address Toy or Ash in reaching this conclusion.]

In the present case, the insured allegedly made two separate claims, 19 days apart. The first had to do with wind damage to roof shingles, and the second addressed the issue concerning the tarp and interior water damage.

Bad Faith Possible for Undue Delay

On the first claim, the insured alleged it gave proper notice of loss, and the insurer failed to respond at all to the claim. The insurer alleged it had no notice, but in any event took the position that its denial letter addressed both the roof shingle and tarp claims.

The court found that there was an issue of whether the insurer had constructive notice of the first claim, even without formal notice. The adjuster was made fully aware of the event, but it is unclear if the insurer thought of this as a distinct event or just part of the continuum in a single claim. It was also unclear whether the denial letter actually addressed the shingle damage as such.

Thus, bad faith had to go to the jury. “If a jury were to conclude that Defendant was aware that Plaintiff had made a claim for the April damage, but ignored it, that could be seen as an objectively unreasonable, frivolous, intentional refusal to pay (or to otherwise resolve the claim in a timely fashion).”

[While there are certainly claims handling issues here regarding delay and responsiveness to an insured, this claim ultimately includes the denial of a benefit. Thus, the issue of whether there can be statutory bad faith without the denial of a benefit is not actually before the court.]

No Bad Faith where Governing Law is Uncertain

As to the second claim, the insurer won summary judgment. This gets back to the dispute over whether the tarp constitutes a roof. “An insurer who makes a reasonable legal conclusion based on an uncertain area of the law has not acted in bad faith.” Thus, “[w]ith no binding guidance from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or the Third Circuit, and numerous fact-intensive cases on the subject, Defendant reasonably interpreted the membrane, and not the tarp, to be the roof. Even if that call is ultimately found to have been incorrect, Defendant did not act in bad faith by denying the claim.”

Date of Decision: March 18, 2020

Harrisburg v. Axis Surplus Ins. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-1213, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48115 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 18, 2020) (Beetlestone, J.)

FAILURES TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE INSURED UNDERMINE INSURER’S SUMMARY JUDGMENT EFFORTS; INSURER MUST SHOW ACTUAL DISAGREEMENT OVER VALUE OCCURRED (Western District)

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The court denied the insurer’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s UIM bad faith. Key issues were the insurer’s having failed to adduce evidence explaining the basis for its denial, and not sufficiently adducing facts contrary to the claims handling allegations in the insured’s complaint. The carrier focused on the fact that the insured did not take discovery, but this was not as detrimental to plaintiff’s case as the insurer believed.

The insured received $50,000 from the tortfeasor’s carrier, and had $250,000 in UIM coverage under his own policy. The complaint alleged detailed facts supporting the position that the insured was highly cooperative in producing information, both independently and upon the insurer’s request. Moreover, the insured submitted to an examination under oath and an independent medical examination, and follow up requests after both.

The claim/investigation process went on for eight months, with the insured’s counsel repeatedly making policy limits demands, with no counteroffer. Ultimately, the insurer offered no payment of any kind to the insured.

During the claim/investigation process, the insured filed a writ of summons. The insurer ultimately responded with a rule to file a complaint, and after the complaint was filed it removed the action to federal court. [Note: Among the various legal principles governing bad faith claims the court recites, is “[t]he Third Circuit has also recognized that ‘using litigation in a bad faith effort to evade a duty owed under a policy [is] actionable under [Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute].’” The court did not amplify on that principle in this case.]

The court observed the carrier did not develop a factual record refuting the detailed claims handling history in the complaint. Thus, “[w]hether the undisputed facts in the Complaint are sufficient for Plaintiff to prove by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] acted in bad faith is for the jury to determine.” Further, there was no evidence in the record as to how, or if, the insurer provided the basis for its claim denial to the insured. At most, the rule to file a complaint functioned as the notice of denial; but even then, the insurer never gave the insured “any information about the basis for its decision.”

The insurer did include a copy of its medical expert’s reports in moving for summary judgment. These reports concluded that the insured “required no further care, treatment or limitations as a result of his motor vehicle accident.” On the other hand, the court found that the insured had apparently produced his own medical expert report during the litigation, opining that significant medical issues resulted in a “no work” restriction.

The court stated: “It may well be that [the insurer] relied upon the results of the independent medical examination or other valid grounds, but the record does not reflect that [this] report was supplied to Plaintiff or that [the insurer] relied on this report in denying Plaintiff’s claim.”

Generally, the court accepted that there might a been a reasonable basis for evaluating the claim for eight months and then denying it, but that reasoning was not disclosed in the record. The insurer attempted to frame the issue as merely a disagreement over value (apparently $250,000+ on the insured’s end and $0 on the insurer’s end).

However, “to prevail on its motion on the ground that the parties had a legitimate value disagreement, it is [the insurer’s] burden, [1] initially, to point to evidence illustrating not only that there was indeed a disagreement over the value of Plaintiff’s claim (as opposed to an outright denial), but [2] also that [the insurer] communicated that disagreement to Plaintiff, for example, by making a counter-offer. [The insurer] has not done so.”

In sum, “[b]ecause there are genuine issues of material fact regarding Plaintiff’s bad faith claim based upon the current state of the record, [the insurer] is not entitled to judgment as matter of law.”

Date of Decision: February 10, 2020

Baldridge v. Geico Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania, Civil Action No. 18-1407, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22311 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 10, 2020) (Dodge, M.J.)

On April 1, 2020, Magistrate Judge Dodge denied the insurer’s motion for reconsideration. A copy of her opinion can be found here.

INSURED SETS OUT BAD FAITH DELAY CLAIM, AS WELL AS CLAIM FOR ATTORNEY’S FEES (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM case involved a claim for full policy limits, amounting to $45,000. The insured alleged serious permanent injuries.

Over two years passed from the time the insured gave notice until the time of suit, with the claim neither paid nor denied. The insured filed suit for declaratory judgment, breach of contract, and bad faith. The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim and attorney’s fee claim, and the court denied the motion.

Bad Faith Claim Based on Delay Adequately Pleaded

The court recognized at least two sources of statutory bad faith: (1) failure to pay and (2) delay in making payment. As to the first, “[w]here a claim of bad faith is based on a refusal to pay benefits under a policy, ‘the plaintiff must show that the defendant did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy and that defendant knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying the claim.’” As to the second, “[t]o sufficiently plead bad faith by way of delay, ‘a plaintiff must allege that a defendant had no reasonable basis for the delay in coverage, and that the defendant delayed coverage with knowing or reckless disregard for the unreasonableness of its action.’”

The court found bad faith delay pleaded, based on the following factual allegations:

  1. The insurer “was put on notice of [the] underinsured motorist benefits claim in March 2017.”

  2. “In January 2018, [the insurer] waived its subrogation rights and consented to … settlement with the third-party insurance carrier.”

  3. “On March 30, 2018, [the insurer] advised [the insured] that her claim for underinsured motorist benefits was being evaluated.”

  4. “From April to July 2018, the parties communicated regarding scheduling an EUO, which took place on July 9, 2018.” As pleaded, it was the insurer that sought an EUO in July, and the insured asked to move it up.

  5. “On July 26, 2018, [the insurer] advised [the insured] that it would likely require her to undergo an IME, however, [the insurer] never moved forward with the IME.”

  6. “Between August 2018 and February 2019, [the insured] provided medical records to [the insurer], both unsolicited and at their request.”

  7. “Between February and June 2019, [the insurer] did not notify [the insured] as to the status of her claim, and at the time of the filing of the instant Complaint in September 2019, [the insurer] had neither paid [the] claim, nor denied it.”

The court summarized how these factual allegations made out a bad faith claim. The insured repeatedly tried to have her claim evaluated. She complied with requests for information, provided unsolicited information, and inquired as to the claim status. However, “despite having over two years to conduct its investigation, [the insurer] has unreasonably and without justification failed to approve or deny her claim.” Based on these factual allegations, there appears no reasonable basis to delay the claim evaluation, which the court equated with a failure to evaluate. The knowing/reckless bad faith element was met because the insured had given notice to the insurer through her inquiries and providing information that the claim had not been paid or rejected.

The court cited the Ridolfi, Kelly, and Smerdon cases concerning a delay-based bad faith analysis.

Clear and Convincing Evidence Standard Held Irrelevant at Pleading Stage

The court rejected the argument that the factual pleadings had to be measured against the clear and convincing evidence standard at the motion to dismiss stage. The court stated this standard is relevant, e.g., to trial, but not at the pleading stage. Rather, pleadings are governed by the plausibility standard. Thus, the insured “need not ‘establish’ anything at this early point in the proceedings, let alone ‘by clear and convincing evidence.’” “Whether sufficient facts will be discovered for [the insured] to survive a motion for summary judgment is unknown and may be addressed at a later date.”

Attorney’s Fees Possible under Bad Faith Statute or MVFRL

Finally, the court refused to dismiss the attorney’s fee claim based on both the bad faith statute, and the possibility that attorney’s fees might be permitted under section 1716 of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law.

Date of Decision: January 24, 2020

Solano-Sanchez v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. No. 5:19-cv-04016, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11784 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 24, 2020) (Leeson, Jr., J.)

DOES TOY V. METROPOLITAN LIFE PROVIDE BINDING PRECEDENT REQUIRING A DENIAL OF BENEFITS FOR COURTS APPLYING PENNSYLVANIA LAW ON THE SCOPE OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH (Western District)

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Like the recent Middle District Ferguson decision, the opinion in this case involves good news and bad news. First, the court addresses head on whether statutory bad faith must be predicated on a denial of benefits, or can be independently sustained based upon a variety of poor claims handling practices. That’s good for those seeking clarity on this issue. The bad news is that, like Ferguson, this opinion never addresses head on the 2007 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

As we have set forth many times on this Blog, the Toy decision strongly appears to require the denial of a benefit as a predicate to bringing a statutory bad faith claim, meaning a refusal to pay proceeds due under the policy, unreasonably delaying payment of proceeds due under the policy, or refusing to pay for a defense due under the policy. Under Toy, other types of poor conduct in claims handling go to evidence of statutory bad faith, without being actionable bad faith standing alone. See this 2014 article for a more detailed discussion.

In the present case, an excess carrier paid $19,000,000 to settle a malpractice suit, contingent on its right to recoup that payment. The insured objected. The insurer brought suit to recover the money, and the insured counterclaimed for breach of contract, common law contractual bad faith, statutory bad faith, and for a declaratory judgment.

The court denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims, and the insurer brought a motion for reconsideration on whether the bad faith claim was adequately pleaded, and whether the damage claims were too speculative and contingent to stand. Both motions were unsuccessful. [We only address the bad faith claim.]

The court focused on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2017 Rancosky decision to address the issue of whether an actionable statutory bad faith claims requires “the plaintiff must allege that the insurer has denied benefits under the policy. … [and] that only either a refusal to pay benefits or a delay in paying benefits that becomes an effective denial can constitute a denial of benefits sufficient to state a claim under § 8371.” The court points out that the Rancosky majority did not address that issue, but Justice Wecht’s Rancosky concurrence “listed several types of conduct, including poor claims-handling, a failure to respond to the insured, and other similar conduct, which could give rise to a § 8371 claim and that list is broader than a refusal or delay in paying benefits.” Although the majority had not adopted that concurrence, because the majority did not expressly refute the concurrence, the District Court “remain[ed] convinced that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, if confronted with the issue … would hold that [the insured] had stated a claim.”

[Note: Per the above comment, however, it strongly appears that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did address the issue in 2007. A review of the carrier’s brief indicates that it argued Toy stood for the proposition “that ‘bad faith’ under § 8371 is strictly limited to ‘those actions an insurer took when called upon to perform its contractual obligations of defense and indemnification or payment of a loss.’” The carrier further argued that Rancosky did not overrule or limit this principle, and if anything reaffirmed it. The District Court clearly rejected the notion that Rancosky limited statutory bad faith claims to the denial of benefits, but never addressed whether Toy did so.]

Thus, the motion for reconsideration was denied. The court held that the insured stated a claim by alleging “poor claims-handling, a failure to respond to the insured, and other similar conduct, which could give rise to a § 8371 claim,” wholly independent of any refusal to pay or delay in paying benefits.

Date of Decision: January 23, 2020

Ironshore Specialty Insurance Co. v. Conemaugh Health System, U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania CASE NO. 3:18-cv-153, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11060 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2020) (Gibson, J.)

Two recent examples of cases finding that statutory bad faith claims must be based upon a denial of benefits are Judge Dubois’ 2019 Buck decision, and Judge Kearney’s 2019 Boring decision. In her 2019 Purvi decision, Judge Beetlestone states that, with limited exceptions, “the essence of a bad faith claim must be the unreasonable and intentional (or reckless) denial of benefits….” (Emphasis in original).

[UPDATED JANUARY 25, 2020] 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, AND LATER DENIES THE INSURER SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON SAME GROUNDS AND EXPERT REPORT ON DEVIATIONS FROM INDUSTRY CLAIM HANDLING STANDARDS (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.)

One month later, the court issued an opinion denying summary judgment on both breach of contract and statutory bad faith. On the contract claim, the court stated that the contractual duty of good faith can be breached through a delay in payment of an inordinate and unreasonable time period.  Within the breach of contract analysis, the court looked to such  issues as the insurer’s claims handling and investigation, the insureds cooperation, and the ultimate claim valuation.

On the statutory bad faith claim, the court identified documents produced by the parties concerning the years long claims handling process. The insurer produced a body of documents in support of its claim that it was in constant communication with the insureds, and the insureds submitted other communication documents including demands on the insurer and medical records to support their bad faith position. The court also considered the insureds expert’s testimony opining that “in the context of industry standard for claims handling, [the] investigation, evaluation and resolution of the plaintiffs UIM claims was unreasonable and intentionally dilatory.”

Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving insured, the court found there remained a material dispute of fact concerning the alleged failure to reasonably investigate, evaluate, or pay the claim.

Date of Decision: November 25, 2019

Golden v. Brethren Mutual Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-cv-02425, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 183691 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 25, 2019) (Saporito, M.J.)

LONG INVESTIGATION REASONABLY FOLLOWING UP ON “RED FLAGS” IS NOT BAD FAITH DELAY (Western District)

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Plaintiff’s house burned down. Before ultimately paying full benefits, the insurer conducted a lengthy, detailed, and wide-ranging arson investigation. The insured brought a breach of contract action for the delayed payment, and a bad faith action alleging there was no evidence to support the arson investigation. The court granted the insurer summary judgment on both claims.

First, “where the insurance company has paid the benefits under the policy, the insured cannot maintain an action for breach of contract.” Payment “negates any breach of contract action,” where the insurer has paid full policy limits, and there is no evidence of a failure to compensate. Even if there was a payment delay, there were no damages from that delay in this case.

On the bad faith claim, the court recognized an insurer can conduct investigations of questionable claims without acting in bad faith. “Where an insurer sees ‘red flags’ that cause concern of insurance fraud and prompt an investigation, the insurer has a reasonable basis for investigation, and is therefore not liable for claims of bad faith.” Red flags can include, e.g., (1) an insured’s financial motive in seeking the insurance proceeds, such as debts exceeding income; (2) a fire marshal’s investigating for arson; and (3) an insurer’s investigation revealing that the fire could not have started as the fire department initially believed.

In this case, there were red flags sufficient to warrant the insurer’s lengthy and multi-faceted investigation, and there was no actionable bad faith.

The court further observed that while payment delay can be the basis for bad faith, or a bad faith factor, such delay is only relevant to bad faith where the insurer “knew that it had no basis to deny the claimant.” In addition, “[w]hile delay in paying a claim is relevant to determining an insurer’s bad faith, it is not dispositive, and does not, on its own, ‘necessarily constitute bad faith.’” Moreover, “even if the insurer is solely responsible for the delay, as long as the delay is due to the insurer’s need to investigate further, or even to negligence, there is no bad faith.”

Here, the insured did not produce clear and convincing evidence to establish the insurer knew its payment delay was baseless. To the contrary, the record showed the insurer reasonably believed there were potential grounds to deny the insured’s claim warranting further investigation. The court found the insurer had a reasonable basis to conduct a lengthy investigation, and reasonably pursued all avenues of investigation as new information arose, until it decided to pay the claim after all of those road were finally traveled.

Date of Decision: October 21, 2019

Merrone v. Allstate Vehicle & Property Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Case No. 3:18-cv-193, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181450 (W. D. Pa. Oct. 21, 2019) (Gibson, 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.)

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.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date of Decision: August 6, 2019

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