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

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)

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.)

A CLOSE CALL, BUT FACTUAL CHRONOLOGY TIED TO ALLEGATIONS OF UNREASONABLE DELAY SET OUT PLAUSIBLE BAD FAITH CLAIM (Middle District)

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Stating it was a close call, Middle District Magistrate Judge Carlson found the following well-pleaded allegations sufficient to set forth a plausible bad faith claim, and recommended denying a motion to dismiss without prejudice to later bringing a summary judgment motion. District Judge Mariani adopted this report and recommendation as the opinion of the court.

The Allegations

  1. Defendant … issued a policy of insurance No. K2495825 to Plaintiffs … covering their two automobiles ….

  2. Defendant … charged and collected a premium for underinsured motorist coverage on said policy.

  3. Plaintiffs … paid all premiums requested by Defendant….

  4. The same policy was in full force and effect [at the time of the auto accident at issue].

  5. On or about August 30, 2015, Plaintiff … was involved in a motor vehicle crash which directly caused him to sustain serious and severe life-threatening injuries some of which are permanent.

  6. On August 30, 2015, Plaintiff … was insured for underinsured coverage in the amount of $250,000.00, with stacking (two cars), by Defendant … under policy K2495828.

  7. As a result of the collision, Plaintiff … suffered severe and permanent injuries including, but not limited to, the following:

(a) neck sprain with severe pain and injuries to his cervical spine, more specifically identified as narrowing of disc space at the C4-C5, C5-C6 and C6-C7 with anterior and posterior osteophytes formation and narrowing of intervertebral foramina at the corresponding bilaterally with nerve root compression. Persistent multilevel degenerative spondylosis, degenerative bilateral facet edema at the C7-T1, bilateral foraminal stenosis at the C3-4, bilateral foraminal stenosis at the C4-5 and C5-6, bilateral foraminal stenosis with left foraminal disc protrusion at the C6-7, all of which pain radiates into his upper extremities;

(b) low back pain and injuries to his lumbar spine including degenerative disc disease with sharp shooting pain radiating into his left lower extremity and sciatica pain;

(c) radiculopathy and nerve injuries to the C8-T1 area;

(d) muscle spasms throughout his cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine;

(e) severe headaches;

(f) right hip pain;

(g) left ankle pain;

(h) right elbow pain; [*4]

(i) ongoing pain management, physical therapy and chiropractic treatment;

(j) ongoing and persistent pain aggravated by standing, sitting, walking, sexual activity, physical activities and elevating his arms;

(k) sleep disruption.

  1. Defendant .. was promptly notified of Plaintiff[’s] … injuries.

  2. As a result Defendant … after and only after litigation against its parent company … was initiated, began to pay and continues to pay medical payments to Plaintiff….

  3. As a result of the aforesaid incident, Plaintiff … was offered the policy limits by the operator of the 3rd party vehicle.

  4. Plaintiff … made a claim for underinsured motorist coverage with Defendant….

  5. Plaintiff …. submitted all the pertinent medical records and bills to Defendant…, indicating the serious physical and economic injuries that he sustained as a result of the crash.

  6. Defendant …refused payment to Plaintiff … of underinsured motorist benefits.

  7. Plaintiff … has performed everything required of him under the policy and is entitled to underinsured motorist benefits from Defendant….

  8. Defendant[‘s] … denial of underinsured motorist benefits was made without any reasonable basis of fact.

  9. Defendant … acted in bad faith in that it did not have a reasonable basis for denying underinsured motorist benefits under the policy and the Defendant … knew and/or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying that claim that Defendant:

(a) Failed to give equal consideration to paying the claim as to not paying the claim.

(b) Failed to objectively and fairly evaluate Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(c) Failed to raise a reasonable defense to not pay Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(d) Compelling Plaintiff … to institute arbitration to obtain underinsured motorist benefits;

(e) Defendant … engaged in dilatory and abusive claim’s handling;

(f) Unreasonably evaluating Plaintiff[‘s] … injuries and loss in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary;

(g) Failed to keep Plaintiff … fairly and adequately advised as to the status of the claim;

(h) Acting unreasonably and unfairly in response to Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(i) Failed to promptly provide a reasonable factual explanation of the basis for the denial of Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(j) Failed to conduct a fair and reasonable investigation and evaluation to Plaintiff[‘s] … claim;

(k) Defendant … violated the Unfair Claims Settlement Practice Act §146.5, 146.6, 146.7;

(l) Defendant … violated the Unfair Insurance Practice Act 40 P.S. §1171.5(a)(10) (ii) (iii) (iv) (v) (vi) (vii) (viii) (xi) (xii) (xiv).

The Analysis

The court found the complaint, “taken as a whole, goes beyond a mere boilerplate recital of the elements of the statute.” These allegations provided a factual chronology, and that “[despite providing [the insurer] with all pertinent medical records and bills, and fulfilling all of their policy obligations, the plaintiffs assert that [the insurer] has unreasonably refused to honor its policy obligations.” The complaint further intertwines these allegations with other bad faith averments, i.e., “unreasonable delay … in beginning to make medical payments”, and only making medical payments after suit was initiated against the insurer’s parent company, despite prompt notice of injuries well prior to suit.

While the averments are “spare,” they “go beyond the type of mere boilerplate allegations that courts have found to be too conclusory to sustain a bad faith claim.” Moreover, Magistrate Judge Carlson would not go beyond the pleadings to accept the insurer’s arguments for dismissal. The insurer asserted that the complaint should be interpreted as actually reflecting the insurer’s “prudent effort on its part to thoroughly examine and resolve a potentially meritless claim….” However, the court found “this argument invites us to go beyond the pleadings themselves and resolve essentially factual questions. This is a task which, in our view, may not be performed on consideration of a motion to dismiss, where we must simply assess the adequacy of the pleadings.”

Thus, the complaint could proceed, without prejudice to the insurer renewing its argument on summary judgment at the close of discovery.

Dates of Decision: July 19, 2019 and August 8, 2019

Vadella v. American States Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 3:19-CV-73, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121606 (M.D. Pa. July 19, 2019) (Carlson, M.J.) (Report and Recommendation), adopted in Vadellla v. American States Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 3:19-CV-73, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133764 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 8, 2019) (Mariani, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM STATED WHERE INSURER TELLS INSURED TO “SUE US” AS A MEANS TO GET A MORE COMPLETE RECORD (Middle District)

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In this case, Judge Caputo found plaintiff pleaded a plausible bad faith claim.

The case involved a fatal auto injury, and the issue of whether the deceased’s father, owner of the car at issue, had an applicable policy covering the accident. The other driver was uninsured.

The carrier asked for additional information after demand was made under the father’s policy. The father sent additional information, but the carrier told him to file a complaint, so it could take discovery. The father brought UM claims, as well as breach of contract and bad faith claims.

The complaint alleged the key issue was the deceased son’s residence. The father provided numerous documents showing the son resided with him; but the carrier still declined coverage on the basis that proof of residency was lacking.

Judge Caputo rejected the carrier’s argument that the complaint amounted to boilerplate conclusory allegations of bad faith. Rather, the complaint alleged sufficient “factual matter to withstand a 12(b)(6) motion.” Specifically, “the Complaint indicate[s] that [the insurer’s] coverage decision under the Policy hinged on a determination of whether [son] resided with [father] at the time of the accident. And, upon request, [father] alleges that he provided more than ample documentation to establish that both he and [his son] resided at [the father’s home] at that time.” This included copies of a driver’s license and tax forms.

Allegedly, instead of asking for more information to fill putative gaps in this information, the carrier told father “sue us”. “Although such conduct may ultimately not amount to bad faith, it is plausible based on the factual assertions in the Complaint that [the carrier] acted in reckless disregard of its obligations under the Policy.”

Date of Decision: July 22, 2019

Fuentes v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania NO. 19-CV-1111, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121362, 2019 WL 3288156 (M.D. Pa. July 22, 2019) (Caputo, J.)

PUNITIVE DAMAGES CLAIM PREVENTS REMAND; BAD FAITH PLEADED WHERE CASE IS NOT MERELY A VALUATION DISPUTE (Middle District)

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On July 1, 2019, Judge Munley issued two opinions in this UIM bad faith case: (1) finding removal proper; and (2) finding the insured pleaded a plausible bad faith case.

Removal was proper where potential punitive damages could take the case above the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum

Judge Munley ruled that the case would remain in federal court, after removal from state court. The insured allegedly suffered severe personal injuries, and the carrier refused to pay the $25,000 UIM policy limits. The state court complaint sought damages in excess of $50,000, punitive damages, interest, counsel fees and costs.

The court recognized that actual damages were limited to $25,000, and the punitive damage and attorney’s fees claims would have to exceed $50,000 to meet the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum. Judge Munley found that “[a] punitive damages award which is double the amount of the policy limit is reasonable and possible in such a case.” As remand is only proper when it appears to “a legal certainty that the plaintiff cannot recover, or was never entitled to recover, the jurisdictional amount [$75,000],” he denied the motion to remand.

The insured pleads a plausible bad faith claim where delays and refusal to pay the sum demanded are not mere disagreements over valuation

Judge Munley observed the insured alleged a severe injury, with damages beyond the tortfeasor’s coverage limits. The insured’s UIM coverage was $25,000, which the defendant carrier refused to pay. Judge Munley concluded the case, as pleaded, was not merely a disagreement over claim valuation, but made out a plausible bad faith claim.

The following averments were sufficient to survive the insurer’s motion to dismiss:

  1. “The amended complaint avers that defendant failed to effectuate a prompt fair and equitable settlement of plaintiff’s claim and compelled her to seek legal redress and commence litigation to recover the benefits to which she was entitled.”

  2. “Further, defendant ignored and discounted the severity of plaintiff’s injuries.”

  3. “Also, defendant did not promptly evaluate the claim, but rather engaged in dilatory and abusive claims handling by delaying the valuation of plaintiff’s claim and failing to pay the claim.”

  4. “The amended complaint also suggests that defendant failed to timely investigate or to make a reasonable settlement offer.”

  5. “Defendant further delayed by asking for authorization to receive medical records which were already in its possession.”

The court also refused to dismiss an attorney’s fee demand under the breach of contract count, as such fees might prove permissible under the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Act (MVFRL).

Dates of Decision: July 1, 2019

Pivtchev v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv150, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109378 (M.D. Pa. July 1, 2019) (Munley, J.)

Pivtchev v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv150, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109377 (M.D. Pa. July 1, 2019) (Munley, J.)

SUPERIOR COURT AFFIRMS DEFENSE VERDICT THAT 10 MONTH NEGOTIATION/INVESTIGATION PERIOD DID NOT AMOUNT TO BAD FAITH (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (non-precedential)

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In this UIM case, the insured settled with the other driver for $50,000. The insurer initially determined the injury at issue did not arise from the accident, based on an IME. The insured later aggravated the injury, and his doctor determined the original injury was from the first accident.

The insured demanded the full UIM policy limits ($100,000). The insurer offered $7,500(considering $50,000 had already been paid). Over the next ten months, the insurer increased the offer six times, ultimately paying the $100,000 policy limit.

The insured sued for bad faith. After a six-day bench trial, the trial court found no bad faith under the Pennsylvania statute. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed.

The appellate court relied upon the following trial court findings in upholding the defense verdict:

  1. “In this case, the trial court found that [the insurer] never denied Appellant’s claim.”

  2. “Instead, it determined that ‘[b]y all accounts … [the] investigation was vigorous; [the insurer] sought and received numerous medical records, ordered independent medical examinations and sought to reconcile often conflicting or changing information, all the time communicating with [the insured] and his attorney.’”

  3. “It further opined that ‘the ten-month negotiation period under examination cannot be deemed unreasonable’ where it was ‘undisputed that [the insured’s] treatment was off-again and on-again throughout this period, substantiating [the insurer’s] observation that [the insured’s] claim, from a medical standpoint, was a ‘fluid file’ with ongoing developments that complicated the evaluation process.’”

  4. “As such, the trial court concluded that at ‘[e]ach step of the way, [the insurer] acknowledged and credited new information and responded accordingly [during the tenth month period].”

  5. “The trial court also methodically details the procedural timeline of [the insurer’s] six increasing offers based upon the information as it became available … over the 10-month time period involved.”

Date of Decision: April 18, 2019

Camiolo v. Erie Insurance Exchange, Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 478 EDA 2018, 2019 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1456 (Pa. Super. Ct. April 18, 2019) (Dubow, Olson, Stevens, JJ.)

IS THE UNFAIR INSURANCE PRACTICES ACT (UIPA) RELEVANT TO STATUTORY BAD FAITH CLAIMS, OR NOT?

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Three April 2019 decisions out of Pennsylvania’s Eastern District bring up the ongoing issue of whether alleged Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA) violations may be used in any manner to establish statutory bad faith claims under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371. We also discussed this issue in a February 2019 post that can be found here.

Case holding UIPA violations may be used to prove bad faith

In the April 3, 2019 Blease decision, the court relied heavily on the UIPA in finding the insured adequately pleaded a statutory bad faith case. That opinion is summarized here.

In particular, the court looked to the UIPA code sections governing 45-day status notices when the claim is not resolved within 30 days. Relying on Pennsylvania Superior Court precedent, the Blease Court stated: “This Court further notes that a plaintiff seeking damages for an insurer’s bad faith conduct under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8371 may attempt to prove bad faith by demonstrating that the insurer has violated one or more provisions of related Pennsylvania insurance statutes or regulations, even if they do not independently provide for private causes of action.”

It is not wholly clear whether this means a UIPA violation may be used as evidence of a statutory bad faith claim, or whether the violation constitutes definitive proof, in and of itself, to establish at least the first prong of the Terletsky/Rancosky bad faith test (unreasonableness).

Case holding UIPA provides an evidentiary yardstick for bad faith cases

On April 23, 2019, another Eastern District Court issued a detailed opinion granting partial summary judgment to the insured, by holding that the insurer acted in bad faith during a very specific period of time. The court left other issues of bad faith, and other time periods, to the jury.

In Shawnee Tabernacle Church v. GuideOne, the court carried out a close factual analysis showing no dispute of material fact that the claim adjusters acted unreasonably and in bad faith in delaying the claim handling process over a period of many months, where there was no excuse for denying coverage or promptly responding to the insured. Thus, the court stated: “As a matter of law, I find that [the insurer] acted in bad faith when it abandoned the investigation and resolution of Plaintiffs’ claim between June 16, 2015 and October 5, 2015, and then further delayed a determination of coverage until December 11, 2015, despite the fact that it possessed all relevant information about the vacancy provision once the EUOs were complete.”

Following Rancosky, the court observed that the insured need not prove ill-will or self-interest to establish statutory bad faith. Moreover, relying on Pennsylvania Superior Court precedent, the court found that “bad faith may include ‘lack of good faith investigation into fact[s], and failure to communicate with the claimant,’ both of which certainly occurred in this case between June and December. … ‘Similarly, a delay in investigation of a claim may constitute bad faith where it involves [i]nexcusable periods of inactivity, unreasonable assumptions, and inadequate communication.’ Here, [the insurer] has offered no excuse for the inactivity with respect to coverage between June 16 and December 11, and it engaged in little to no communication with Plaintiffs about the coverage issue during the same period.”

Getting to the UIPA, again citing Superior Court precedent, the court found that “[t]he lack of communication is a violation of Section 146.7(c)(1) of Title 31 of the Pennsylvania Code, which requires a report to the insured every 45 days explaining the reasons for delay in resolving a claim. Although such a violation does not establish bad faith per se, it constitutes relevant evidence. But Section 146.7(c)(1) has relevance beyond the obligation to communicate. By specifying the frequency with which a carrier must report to its insured, it provides an objective yardstick recognized by the Pennsylvania Insurance Department as to what constitutes a reasonable interval within which a carrier should be able to address the merits of a claim. From mid-June through mid-December, four full intervals elapsed without resolution or explanation, even as [the insured] faced financial peril. This further supports the conclusion that [the insurer’s] conduct was reckless during this period and constituted bad faith.”

UIPA violations cannot be used as evidence of statutory bad faith

By contrast, also on April 23, 2019, a third Eastern District Judge appears to deny any role for the UIPA in determining a statutory bad faith claim. The decision in Horn v. Minnesota Life Insurance Company can be found here. To quote that decision:

At Count IV, Plaintiff asserts that the handling of her claim under the Policy constituted bad faith, thus, entitling her to damages under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8371. Plaintiff contends that [the insurer] acted in bad faith by, inter alia, denying her claim, engaging in misleading marketing practices, failing to communicate regularly about its investigation, and acting in a manner prohibited by the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (“UIPA”), 40 Pa. Stat. § 1171.1 et seq. “To prevail on a bad faith claim, the insured must prove two elements: ‘(1) that the insurer did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy; and (2) that the insurer knew of or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis in denying the claim.'” U.S. Fire Ins. Co. v. Kelman Bottles, 538 F. App’x 175, 182 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Nw. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Babayan, 430 F.3d 121, 137 (3d Cir. 2005)). The insured must prove these elements by clear and convincing evidence, and “the insured’s burden in opposing a summary judgment motion brought by the insurer is commensurately high.” Babayan, 430 F.3d at 137 (internal quotations omitted). Here, this Court finds that [the insurer] had a reasonable basis for denying benefits; namely, [the insured’s] premium had not been paid, and the grace period described in the Policy had expired at the time of [the insured’s] death. As such, Plaintiff cannot prove the first element of her bad faith claim, and summary judgment is granted with respect to that claim.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, Plaintiff argues that Defendants’ bad faith is evidenced by their alleged violation of the UTPCPL and “insurance regulations” such as the UIPA and the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices regulations (“UCSP”), 31 Pa. Code §§ 146.1-146.10. However, Plaintiff is mistaken as these claims fail as a matter of law. See Leach v. Nw. Mut. Ins. Co., 262 F. App’x 455, 459 (3d Cir. 2008) (holding that “insofar as [plaintiff’s] claim for bad faith was based upon an alleged violation of the UIPA, it failed as a matter of law.”); Dinner v. U.S. Auto. Ass’n Cas. Ins. Co., 29 F. App’x 823, 827 (3d Cir. 2002); (“it is apparent from a comparison of bad faith standard [that the Pennsylvania Superior Court] adopted with the provisions of the UIPA and the UCSP that much of the conduct proscribed by the latter is wholly irrelevant” to the bad faith analysis); Watson v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118873, 2011 WL 4894073, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 12, 2011) (observing that, since the current bad faith standard was established in Terletsky, “courts in the [Third] circuit have . . . refused to consider UIPA violations as evidence of bad faith.”). Therefore, summary judgment is granted with respect to Plaintiff’s claim of bad faith.

A link to other UIPA cases summarized on this Blog can be found here.

Copies of these April 2019 opinions can be found here:

Blease v. Geico Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 18-3893, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57145 (E.D. Pa. April 3, 2019) (Jones, II, J.)

Shawnee Tabernacle Church v. GuideOne Insurance, U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 16-5728, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68442 (E.D. Pa. April 23, 2019) (McHugh, J.)

Horn v. Minnesota Life Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 17-238, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69016 (E.D. Pa. April 23, 2019) (Quiñones Alejandro, J.)

COURT RELIES ON DELAYS IN FACT, AND DELAYS AS DEFINED IN THE UNFAIR INSURANCE PRACTICES ACT (UIPA), IN ALLOWING BAD FAITH CASE TO PROCEED (Philadelphia Federal)

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The common theme in today’s two posts is the plaintiffs’ adequately pleading bad faith in federal court.

In this first post, the carrier moved to dismiss the uninsured motorist bad faith claim. The insured alleged bad faith for the carrier’s failing to negotiate or offer adequate compensation for damage claims submitted, with an apparent policy limits ($300,000) demand in place.

The court found the complaint adequately pleaded a bad faith claim, focusing on delays in the claims handling process. Significantly, some of the facts the court relied upon were framed expressly as violations of the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA). [Note: Compare this decision to the Eastern District Horn case, decided three weeks later, where the court stated “that, since the current bad faith standard was established in Terletsky ‘courts in the [Third] circuit have … refused to consider UIPA violations as evidence of bad faith.'” The Terletsky standards have since been adopted by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in Rancosky.]

The following facts were considered sufficient to support a plausible claim: “Defendant unduly delayed the investigative insurance process, which is aptly illustrated by his allegations that: Defendant became aware of Plaintiff’s claim ‘nearly immediately’ after the accident; Defendant failed to conduct a Statement Under Oath until January 5, 2018—nearly 18 months after the accident; Defendant did not perform an Independent Medical Evaluation for the case until May 9, 2018—nearly 23 months after the accident; and, Defendant did not make a first claim offer until two years and nine months after the accident.”

“With that said, the statutory violation would not be found in the delay per se, but rather in Defendant’s alleged failure to send any periodic, statutorily mandated communications, in writing, explaining such delay, and informing Plaintiff of when a decision on the claim might be expected, in violation of 31 Pa. Code § 146.6. Beyond the alleged delay in the investigation of the disputed claim, Plaintiff further pleads Defendant’s complete failure to provide the required written notices in connection with Defendant’s acceptance (or denial) of the disputed insurance claim until 17 months after the accident, in violation of 31 Pa. Code § 146.7(c)(1).” [Note: The court’s footnotes citing these two codes sections are quoted at length below]

“The consistent lack of timely notices, if ultimately proven true, would be relevant in determining the nature of Defendant’s dealings with Plaintiff, particularly so when considering Plaintiff’s averment that he did not receive a settlement offer until two years and nine days after the claimed accident, and for $285,000.00 below [the $300,000.00] policy limits.”

“This Court further notes that a plaintiff seeking damages for an insurer’s bad faith conduct under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8371 may attempt to prove bad faith by demonstrating that the insurer has violated one or more provisions of related Pennsylvania insurance statutes or regulations, even if they do not independently provide for private causes of action. See Berg v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 2012 PA Super 88, 44 A.3d 1164, 1174 (Pa. Super. 2012).”

“This Court finds that the extended duration, coupled with the alleged statutory violations, speak to a plausible ‘reckless disregard’ by Defendant as to its duties relating to good faith and fair dealing.”

Date of Decision: April 3, 2019

Blease v. Geico Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 18-3893, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57145 (E.D. Pa. April 3, 2019) (Jones, II, J.)

Footnote 5 states: Section 146.6 sets forth appropriate standards for prompt investigations of insurance claims, providing that “[e]very insurer shall complete investigation of a claim within 30 days after notification of claim, unless the investigation cannot reasonably be completed within the time. If the investigation cannot be completed within 30 days, and every 45 days thereafter, the insurer shall provide the claimant with a reasonable written explanation for the delay and state when a decision on the claim may be expected.” 31 Pa. Code § 146.6.

Footnote 6 states: 31 Pa. Code § 146.7(c)(1) sets forth standards for prompt, fair, and equitable settlements applicable to insurers: “If the insurer needs more time to determine whether a first-party claim should be accepted or denied, it shall so notify the first-party claimant within 15 working days after receipt of the proofs of loss giving the reasons more time is needed. If the investigation remains incomplete, the insurer shall, 30 days from the date of the initial notification and every 45 days thereafter, send to the claimant a letter setting forth the reasons additional time is needed for investigation and state when a decision on the claim may be expected.” 31 Pa. Code § 146.7(c)(1).