Archive for the 'PA – No coverage due, bad faith still possible' Category

BAD FAITH CLAIM IS RIPE TO PROCEED; COURT REJECTS MOTION TO BIFURCATE OR SEVER (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this underinsured motorist bad faith case, Eastern District Judge DuBois denied both a motion to dismiss on ripeness grounds, and an alternative motion to server or bifurcate.

The complaint alleges the tortfeasor had $50,000 in coverage and the plaintiff/insured had $500,000 in UIM coverage. The tortfeasor agreed to settle at $47,000 and the UIM carrier consented. Plaintiffs alleged severe and permanent injuries and pursued a UIM claim.

Specifically, the insureds allege they complied with all policy terms and conditions; the insurer did not tender any UIM benefits or make any settlement offers; the insurer did not conduct any investigation into the claims; and the insurer played “cat and mouse” games by “continuously and systematically failing to communicate any offer of settlement or denial of benefits,” misleading plaintiffs as to potential settlement on at least nine occasions, and “purposefully ignoring [plaintiffs’] demand for underinsured motorist benefits.”

BAD FAITH CLAIM CAN PROCEED

First, Judge DuBois rejected the argument that the bad faith claim was not ripe until the breach of contract claim was actually decided. Among other things, the court stated: “Success on a statutory claim for bad faith does not necessarily depend on the success of the underlying breach of contract claim.” Relying on a 1996 Eastern District decision, the court quotes: “A claim for bad faith brought pursuant to § 8371 is a separate and distinct cause of action and is not contingent on the resolution of the underlying contract claim. A plaintiff may succeed on its bad faith claim even if it fails on the underlying breach of contract claim. Additionally, courts interpreting § 8371 have consistently entertained multi-count complaints containing both unresolved insurance contract disputes and bad faith claims.”

The court further relies on the unpublished Third Circuit decision, Gallatin Fuels, Inc. v. Westchester Fire Insurance Co., in reasoning that “’[a] finding that the insured did not ultimately have a duty to cover the plaintiff’s claim does not per se make the insured’s actions reasonable’ in hindsight.” Judge DuBois concludes: “Therefore, so long as the underlying contract claim is ripe, the bad faith claim is also ripe.”

After finding the claim ripe, the court finds plaintiffs can proceed on their bad faith claim. “Plaintiffs allege defendant acted in bad faith by failing to properly investigate their insurance claim, engage in settlement discussions, and communicate with them. This is ‘a separate and distinct’ cause of action from plaintiff’s claim that defendant breached the terms of the policy in failing to pay UIM benefits. … As such, a finding that defendant does not owe plaintiffs UIM benefits would not mandate a finding that defendant did not act in bad faith in handling the insurance claim.”

[Note: This opinion does not address the impact of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in determining to what extend a statutory bad faith claim can proceed, if at all, when there is no duty to pay any benefits under the policy. Moreover, we have previously observed that Gallatin Fuels never addressed Toy. These issues have been discussed many times on the Blog, most recently here.

Of special note is Judge DuBois’ 2019 decision in Buck v. GEICO, which appears to emphasize, and confirm, the denial of a benefit as a predicate to statutory bad faith claims. Among other things, the Buck opinion looks to Toy as a leading authority, and not Gallatin Fuels. The Buck opinion includes language, in quotes below, stating:

“Even assuming that the bad faith denial of the benefits claimed by plaintiff was properly alleged in the Complaint, plaintiff’s argument fails because plaintiff does not allege the denial of any benefits within the meaning of the statute. ‘[B]ad faith’ as it concern[s] allegations made by an insured against his insurer ha[s] acquired a particular meaning in the law.’”

“Courts in Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit have consistently held that ‘[a] plaintiff bringing a claim under [§ 8371] must demonstrate that an insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured through ‘any frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay proceeds of a policy.’”

The Buck plaintiff could not state a claim because “[n]one of the ‘benefits’ that defendant allegedly denied plaintiff concern the refusal to pay proceeds under an insurance policy. To the contrary, plaintiff concedes that he ‘does not allege bad faith for refusal to pay benefits.’”

Buck observes that cases have held “’section 8371 is not restricted to an insurer’s bad faith in denying a claim. An action for bad faith may also extend to the insurer’s investigative practices.’” This means, however, that bad faith claims “’need not be limited to the literal act of denying a claim.’”

Rather, “the essence of a bad faith claim must be the unreasonable and intentional (or reckless) denial of benefits.” “Thus, plaintiff must allege the denial of benefits to state a claim under § 8371.”]

In the present case, there seems to be no question that UIM coverage is provided, but only whether the plaintiff’s damages reach into the UIM coverage level or stop below $50,000. The insurer does not appear to challenge whether a plausible bad faith claim has been pleaded with adequate factual allegations, but only that the bad faith claim should not be allowed to proceed because it is not ripe. The court concludes that the UIM bad faith claim is ripe and can proceed.

MOTION TO BIFURCATE OR SEVER DENIED

The Procedures and Standards Governing Contract and Bad Faith Claims do not Favor Bifurcation or Severance.

Judge Dubois first rejected the argument that the claims should be severed or bifurcated because they will be governed by different procedures and standards. First, the carrier incorrectly argued that the contract and loss of consortium claims go to a jury while bad faith is decided by the judge. While true in Pennsylvania state court actions, bad faith claims can go to the jury in federal court cases. Next the court rejected the notion that the jury would be confused in applying the preponderance of the evidence standard to the contract claim and clear and convincing evidence standard to the bad faith claim. Judge Dubois also rejected the argument that the facts at issue on the two claims were entirely distinct.

“For example, one of plaintiffs’ assertions in the bad faith claim is that defendant failed to conduct an adequate investigation into plaintiffs’ injuries. This requires inquiry into two facts (1) the extent of plaintiffs’ injuries, and (2) the extent of defendant’s investigation into those injuries. The breach of contract claim also requires inquiry into the extent of plaintiffs’ injuries. A separate trial on the bad faith claim would require plaintiffs to present much of the same evidence to the second jury, ‘duplicating in many respects the presentation to the first jury.’ This would be expensive and time-consuming for all parties. Because of the factual overlap between the claims, it would be more convenient to have a single trial in this case. Accordingly, the convenience factor weighs against severance or bifurcation.”

There is no Prejudice Because the Work Product Doctrine Remains Functional.

As to prejudice, the insurer focused on protecting work product. Judge Dubois states: “On this factor, defendant contends that allowing discovery and trial for the claims to proceed simultaneously would prejudice defendant because discovery in the bad faith claim would require defendant to disclose the claim adjustor’s mental impressions, conclusions, and opinions as to the merits of the case, evidence that is not discoverable in the breach of contract case. … To the extent that the claim adjustor’s work product is protected, defendant’s argument is unconvincing.”

Judge Dubois joins the vast majority of opinions finding the attorney client privilege and work product doctrine do not fall by the wayside simply because an insured brings a bad faith claim: “The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and longstanding judicial precedent protect work product from disclosure—protections that do not disappear merely because work product prepared in anticipation of litigation over one claim may also be relevant to a second claim. Allowing the claims to proceed simultaneously simply means [defendant] will be called upon to prove its entitlement to work product protection….”

Judicial Economy Favors a Single Action

As to judicial economy:

“Defendant’s argument as to this factor is that, should plaintiffs fail on their breach of contract claim, the bad faith claim will be moot. As explained above, that is an incorrect statement of the law. Plaintiffs’ bad faith claim is based, in part, on defendant’s failure to investigate plaintiff’s insurance claims and communicate with plaintiffs regarding their claims. ‘A finding that the [insurer] did not ultimately have a duty to cover the plaintiff’s claim does not per se make the [insurer’s] actions reasonable’ in hindsight. Gallatin Fuels, Inc., 244 F. App’x at 434-35. Whether defendant ultimately owes plaintiff benefits under the policy is distinct from whether defendant appropriately handled the claims.” [See Note above re Toy v. Metropolitan and Buck v. GEICO.]

“To the contrary, a single trial promotes judicial economy because it avoids duplication of effort by the parties across multiple trials. Although the contractual and bad faith claims present distinct legal issues, the underlying facts overlap. Therefore, “[b]ifurcation would essentially double the life of this action requiring a second discovery period, more dispositive motions, more pretrial motions, and a completely separate trial,” much of which would concern the same factual basis. … Accordingly, the judicial economy factor weighs against severance or bifurcation.”

Date of Decision: September 11, 2020

Dunleavy v. Encompass Home & Auto Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-1030, 2020 WL 5501200 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 11, 2020) (DuBois, J.)

ARE THERE MANY KINDS OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH, EVEN WHEN NO COVERAGE IS DUE ? (Western District)

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This statutory bad faith opinion issued out of the Western District of Pennsylvania yesterday.

The court finds no coverage based on a one-year suit limitation provision and/or a policy exclusion. Thus, plaintiffs have no bad faith claim based on denial of coverage, as no coverage is due, and that claim is dismissed with prejudice.

The court expressly finds, however, that there are other forms of statutory bad faith cognizable under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371, beyond coverage denials.  It identifies a commonly recognized exception that if the contract claim fails for a technical reason, like exceeding a limitation period, the bad faith claim can still proceed.  The court goes beyond this kind of technical exception to recognize further that poor claims handling may be actionable independently, e.g., knowing or recklessly inadequate investigation, even when no benefit is due under the policy.

On this distinct bad faith investigation claim, plaintiffs only plead (1) conclusory allegations, along with (2) a single fact that cannot constitute bad faith standing alone. Thus, the court dismisses the bad faith investigation claim, but without prejudice. Plaintiffs have leave to file an amended complaint on their investigation bad faith claim, even though no coverage is due under the policy.

[Note: As those following this blog know, we have addressed the scope of cognizable claims under section 8371, and raised the question as to whether cognizable claims under section 8371 are limited to cases where first party benefits due have been denied, or where a defense and/or indemnification due have been refused on third party claims.  Our analysis always begins with the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.  See, e.g., this post, and this article. The present opinion relies, in part, on the Third Circuit’s unpublished decision in Gallatin Fuels. As discussed in the linked article, Gallatin Fuels does not address Toy. We are also attaching a portion of a brief recently filed in a Philadelphia federal court, from attorney Lee Applebaum, as part of a motion that has now become moot.]

Date of Decision:  August 26, 2020

Palek v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 20-170 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 26, 2020) (Flowers Conti, J.)

Our thanks to Attorney Daniel Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.

INSURED FAILS TO ADEQUATELY PLEAD BAD FAITH; CAN CONDIO BE USED TO DEFINE THE SCOPE OF THE BAD FAITH STATUTE AFTER TOY (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insured failed to plead a plausible bad faith claim in this first party property loss case.

We will address two things about this case.  First, the details in the court’s decision granting the motion to dismiss.  Second, the court’s finding that statutory bad faith can consist of more than the denial of first party benefits or the denial of a defense and indemnification in third party claims.

Failure to Plead a Plausible Bad Faith Claim

As discussed many times by the federal district courts addressing bad faith claims, conclusory allegations simply carry no weight in adequately pleading a bad faith claim. Courts will parse the complaint to determine what non-conclusory facts have actually been pleaded, what allegations are merely conclusory boilerplate and can be disregarded, and whether facts left standing after that process can support a plausible bad faith claim.

In this case, the facts pleaded only included the location of covered property, that a peril covered under the policy caused direct physical loss and damage to the property, that prompt and timely notice of loss was given to the carrier, and that the insured fully complied with all necessary policy terms and conditions.

The complaint went on to aver generically 13 forms of bad faith behavior, with no factual detail (listed below). The court readily found these allegations conclusory.

The court gave particular attention to a few of these conclusory allegations. For example, the complaint alleges the carrier “’misrepresent[ed] pertinent facts or policy provisions relating to coverages at issue’ and ‘sen[t] correspondence falsely representing’ that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits under the Policy….” However, the complaint failed “to explain what those misrepresentations may have been.”

Plaintiff also averred that the insurer “’fail[ed] to fairly negotiate the amount of [Plaintiff’s] loss” … but provides no details describing what was unfair about the negotiations.”  Judge Padova added that “[t]he Complaint’s remaining bad faith allegations merely assert that [the insurer] was not prompt, thorough, fair, or reasonable in how it handled or denied the claim, but does not provide any facts explaining how [it] was not prompt, thorough, fair, or reasonable.”

The Complaint was dismissed with leave to amend.

Can Courts Rely on the Superior Court’s 2006 Condio Decision to Determine the Scope of the Bad Faith Statute after the 2007 Supreme Court Decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life

Though not ultimately relevant to the court’s decision, the opinion states that:

“‘[S]ection 8371 is not restricted to an insurer’s bad faith in denying a claim. An action for bad faith may [also] extend to the insurer’s investigative practices.’” Greene v. United Servs. Auto. Ass’n, 936 A.2d 1178, 1187 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007) (alterations in original) (quoting Condio, 899 A.2d at 1142). Indeed, the term bad faith “‘encompasses a wide variety of objectionable conduct’” including “‘lack of good faith investigation into facts, and failure to communicate with the claimant.’” Id. at 1188 (quoting Condio, 899 A.2d at 1142).

The Superior Court decided Condio in 2006.

In the 2007 Supreme Court Toy v. Metropolitan Life decision, Chief Justice Cappy, writing for the majority, observed that at the time of the Bad Faith Statute’s 1990 enactment, “the term ‘bad faith’ concerned the duty of good faith and fair dealing in the parties’ contract and the manner by which an insurer discharged its obligations of defense and indemnification in the third-party claim context or its obligation to pay for a loss in the first-party claim context.” “In other words, the term captured those actions an insurer took when called upon to perform its contractual obligations of defense and indemnification or payment of a loss that failed to satisfy the duty of good faith and fair dealing implied in the parties’ insurance contract.”

Justice Eakin, writing in concurrence, found this reading too narrow. In their competing opinions, Justices Cappy and Eakin specifically debate the meaning and application of Condio in statutory bad faith actions. Justice Eakin cites Condio, among other Pennsylvania Superior Court cases, to argue the majority’s interpretation of the bad faith statute is too narrow.

In response, Chief Justice Cappy does not reject the Condio opinion, but states that Condio is addressing a different aspect of “bad faith” than what the court had to decide that day.

Justice Cappy finds there are two aspects to “bad faith” in the context of section 8371.  “As we observe in footnotes 17 and 18, we do not consider what actions amount to bad faith [conduct], what actions of an insurer may be admitted as proof of its bad faith, whether an insurer’s violations of the UIPA are relevant to proving a bad faith claim or whether the standard of conduct the Superior Court has applied to assess an insurer’s performance of contractual obligations in bad faith cases is the correct one.”  Rather, “[i]n this area, the term ‘bad faith’ refers not only to [1] the claim an insured brings against his insurer under the bad faith statute, but also, [2] to the conduct an insured asserts his insurer exhibited and establishes that it is liable. These matters although related, are nonetheless, separate and distinct. We write to the former.  The concurrence appears to write to the latter.”

Justice Cappy specifically describes the issue in Condio, and other Superior Court cases cited by Justice Eakin, as “whether the evidence offered at trial by the insured as to the insurer’s behavior was sufficient to prove the bad faith claim and/or admissible in a § 8371 action.” Thus, it appears, Condio does not address the scope of what claims are cognizable under the Bad Faith Statute in the first instance, but addresses the adequacy of evidence in proving bad faith.

In light of (1) this distinction raised by the Toy Majority between the two uses of the term “bad faith”, (2) in direct response to Justice Eakin’s argument that statutory bad faith claims should broadly encompass the kind of behavior identified in Condio, and that such claims not be limited to “the manner by which an insurer discharged its obligations of defense and indemnification in the third-party claim context or its obligation to pay for a loss in the first-party claim context,” then (3) it is questionable that Condio, and other pre-Toy Superior Court cases, can expand the category of cognizable claims under the Bad Faith Statute to include conduct beyond “the manner by which an insurer discharged its obligations of defense and indemnification in the third-party claim context or its obligation to pay for a loss in the first-party claim context….”

See this article for a more detailed discussion.

Date of Decision: August 4, 2020

HARRIS v. ALLSTATE VEHICLE AND PROPERTY INSURANCE COMPANY, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-1285, 2020 WL 4470402 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 4, 2020) (Padova, J.)

Conclusory allegations in the Complaint

  1. by sending correspondence falsely representing that Plaintiff’s loss [was not] caused by a peril insured against under the Policy [and that Plaintiff] was not entitled to benefits due and owing under the Policy;

  2. in failing to complete a prompt and thorough investigation of Plaintiff’s claim before representing that such claim is not covered under the Policy;

  3. in failing to pay Plaintiff’s covered loss in a prompt and timely manner;

  4. in failing to objectively and fairly evaluate Plaintiff’s claim;

  5. in conducting an unfair and unreasonable investigation of Plaintiff’s claim;

  6. in asserting Policy defenses without a reasonable basis in fact;

  7. in flatly misrepresenting pertinent facts or policy provisions relating to coverages at issue and placing unduly restrictive interpretations on the Policy and/or claim forms;

  8. in failing to keep Plaintiff or [her] representatives fairly and adequately advised as to the status of the claim;

  9. in unreasonably valuing the loss and failing to fairly negotiate the amount of the loss with Plaintiff or [her] representatives;

  10. in failing to promptly provide a reasonable factual explanation of the basis for the denial of Plaintiff’s claim;

  11. in unreasonably withholding policy benefits;

  12. in acting unreasonably and unfairly in response to Plaintiff’s claim;

m. in unnecessarily and unreasonably compelling Plaintiff to institute this lawsuit to obtain policy benefits for a covered loss, that Defendant should have paid promptly and without the necessity of litigation.

COURTS SPLIT ON WHETHER STATUTORY BAD FAITH EXISTS WHERE NO BENEFITS ARE DUE UNDER AN INSURANCE POLICY (Philadelphia Federal and Lackawanna County Common Pleas)

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Anyone following this blog has been made aware, ad naseum, that courts are divided on whether statutory bad faith can exist where no benefit is denied.  In this context, denial of a benefit includes a bad faith delay in providing a benefit owed. Thus, the issue is not whether a belated payment or defense can constitute bad faith.  Rather, the issue is whether a statutory bad faith claim is cognizable if an insurer owes no duty to indemnify in a first party case, or to defend or indemnify against a third party claim.

We have pointed out that the 2007 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life strongly appears to have answered this question: There is no statutory bad faith possible if no benefit is denied.  Thus, if no benefit is due, it would appear section 8371 is not the remedy for poor claims handling practices, standing alone.

Last week, Eastern District Judge McHugh ruled in a case that no coverage was due under the policy at issue.  After so ruling, he then addressed the bad faith claim in one sentence.  “Because I have concluded that [the insurer] acted in accordance with the terms of the policy, it cannot be deemed to have acted in bad faith.”  Hemphill v. Landmark Insurance Company. Another example of this principle is found in Judge DuBois’ 2019 Buck decision, which specifically cites Toy.

One day earlier, Lackawanna County Common Pleas Judge Nealon concluded that statutory bad faith did not require denial of a benefit. In fact, a carrier could win summary judgment that no coverage was due under an insurance policy, but still be subject to a statutory bad faith claim.  Farber v. Erie Insurance Exchange.

Judge Nealon states that the success of a statutory bad faith claim does not depend on the success of the underlying contract claim. Citing a 1999 Superior Court opinion, he adds that “because ‘[a] bad faith action under Section 8371 is neither related to nor dependent on the underlying contract claim against the insurer,’ [the insured] is ‘not required to await a judicial determination of the coverage issue’ before pursuing a bad faith claim….”

There are numerous cases out of Pennsylvania’s Superior Court and Federal Courts finding there is a subset of statutory bad faith claims that do not require the denial of a benefit.  Despite Toy’s importance on this issue, these cases typically do not cite Toy. Of course, some of the cases were decided before Toy, but many are not.   Rather, these post-Toy cases cite case authority that ultimately relies on pre-Toy precedent.

The Farber opinion cites Superior Court case law relying on authority from the 1990s, as well as Middle District Judge Rambo’s 2019 Ferguson opinion.  In Ferguson, Judge Rambo addressed the issue head on, and concluded that there are cognizable statutory bad faith claims that do not require denial of a benefit. Unfortunately, Ferguson does not consider the Toy opinion in reaching this conclusion.

Here are links to our various posts on the subject over the last two years: May 4, 2020, April 16, 2020, March 25, 2020, February 24, 2020, January 28, 2020, December 9, 2019, November 21, 2019, August 19, 2019, January 30, 2019, and October 31, 2018.

Dates of Decision: July 8, 2020 and July 9, 2020

Farber v. Erie Insurance Exchange, Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County, No. 19 CV 2302 (July 8, 2020) (Nealon, J.)

Hemphill v. Landmark Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 19-5260, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120447 (E.D. Pa. July 9, 2020) (McHugh, J.)

Our thanks to attorney Daniel Cummins of the excellent and valued Tort Talk Blog for bringing the Farber case to our attention.

BAD FAITH CLAIM CAN PROCEED EVEN THOUGHT CONTRACT CLAIM DISMISSED AS UNTIMELY; ADJUSTOR AND INVESTIGATOR NOT SUBJECT TO BAD FAITH STATUTE (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involved breach of contract and bad faith claims against the insurer based on its decision not to cover the alleged theft of jewelry. The insurer engaged an investigation firm to look into the theft. The individual investigator assigned to the claim raised questions about either the ownership of the jewelry, or whether it was actually stolen in a burglary.

The insurer was granted judgment on the pleadings as to the breach of insurance contract claim. The policy had a one-year limitations period for brining suit, and the insured failed to file her action within one year.

Even though there was no coverage due because of the contractual limitations period, however, the court denied summary judgment on the bad faith claim. The insurer argued that the insured’s “deposition testimony shows that she cannot meet her burden of establishing bad faith.” The court found this argument premature.

The case had been removed to federal court and immediately placed in the arbitration track. There were no formal discovery requests from any party. The court found that the “litigation that has ensued does not preclude full and fair discovery on fact-driven claims that remain on the bad-faith count.” Thus, summary judgment was premature, and the motion was dismissed without prejudice. Judge Rufe added a requirement that the parties had to report jointly regarding to the court on what discovery was being pursued, if any, heading into the arbitration.

[Note: The insurer apparently did not attempt to argue that if the contract claim was dismissed, then the bad faith claim necessarily failed. There is some case law holding if the contract claim is dismissed on the basis of a contractual limitations period, the bad faith claim can still proceed. See, e.g., Doylestown Electrical Supply Co. v. Maryland Casualty Ins. Co., 942 F. Supp. 1018 (E.D. Pa. 1996) and March v. Paradise Mutual Ins. Co., 646 A.2d 1254 (Pa. Super. 1994), appeal denied, 540 Pa. 613, 656 A.2d 118 (1995).]

Finally, the insured attempted to amend the complaint to add claims against the insurer’s claim adjustor, the company it hired to investigate the claim and the individual investigator. The court found these claims meritless and would not allow amendment.

An individual adjustor working for an insurer is not an insurer. Thus, the individual adjustor was not subject to (i) a breach of contract claim because he was not a party to the contract; or (ii) the bad faith claim because Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute only applies to insurers. The same reasoning applied to the investigators.

Date of Decision: April 30, 2020

Holden v. Homesite Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-2167, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75904 (E.D. Pa. April 30, 2020) (Rufe, J.)

 

(1) NO COVERAGE DUE MEANS NO BAD FAITH AS A MATTER OF LAW ON COVERAGE DENIAL; (2) REASONABLE RELIANCE ON ENGINEERING EXPERT NEGATES BAD FAITH INVESTIGATION CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insured church’s roof collapsed. The insurer denied coverage on the basis that its engineer determined the causal factors were “a combination of deferred maintenance, improper roof slope, and poor drainage,” and none of these collapse factors are covered causes of loss under the policy.

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The church’s evidence for coverage came from its public adjuster. He testified (1) there was heavy wind and rain “close” to the date of loss; (2) there was no long term damage from roof leaks; and (3) and even if so, he doubted any such leaks were the “main factor” in the roof’s collapse. The public adjuster, however, “did not offer an opinion as to what caused the roof’s collapse,” and the church did not produce “any other evidence suggesting the cause of the roof’s collapse was a covered event under the policy.”

The insurer successfully moved for summary judgment on both counts.

No Coverage Due

In granting summary judgment on the breach of contract claim, Judge Robreno stated the church “failed to produce any evidence, beyond mere speculation, that the roof’s collapse was caused by a wind and rain event.” Thus, there were no facts sufficient to show the roof’s collapse fell within a covered cause, and it could not meet its burden of proof.

Bad Faith Claim Analyzed for both Improper Coverage Denial and Inadequate Investigation

On the bad faith claim, the church alleged both improper denial and failure to conduct a proper investigation. The court noted that because a number of courts have held statutory bad faith claims are not contingent on the outcome of the breach of contract claim, the court would consider the inadequate investigation claim as a separate basis for plaintiff’s statutory bad faith claim. The court further observed Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has not decided this specific issue.

[We have noted before on this Blog that a failure to investigate, standing alone, is arguably not a cognizable claim under the Bad Faith Statute based on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life.]

As to improper denial, the court found for the insurer as a matter of law. “A finding that denial of the claim under the policy was warranted is inconsistent with a claim that [the insurer] acted in bad faith in denying the claim.”

As to the inadequate investigation claim, Judge Robreno observed that “[i]nsurance companies act reasonably, and do not exercise bad faith, when they deny claims based upon engineering experts’ reports.” He relied on his 2011 decision in El Bor v. Firemen’s Fund, and Western District Judge Fischer’s decision in Palmisano v. State Farm.

The court then examined the reasonableness of the insurer’s reliance. There was no dispute the engineer’s report pre-dated the carrier’s claim denial. Further, there was no support in the record for the insured’s assertions that the report was “’devoid of facts, experiments, measurements, testing, and scientific principles.’” Rather, the report was based on an actual property inspection, and that the engineer provided the carrier “with photographs and measurements of the property.”

On the other hand, in its denial letter the carrier asked the church if it could provide any additional information supporting coverage. It gave the insured 30 days to provide any further information supporting coverage, but nothing was forthcoming.

The court stated that under these facts, there was no evidence that the insurer relied on the report in bad faith, observing that even if an insurer’s expert were incorrect, that alone “’is not evidence that his conclusions were unreasonable or that Defendant acted unreasonably in relying upon them.’”

Date of Decision: April 7, 2020

Gethsemane FBH Church of God v. Nationwide Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-03677, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60780 (E.D. Pa. April 7, 2020) (Robreno, 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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motion to sever claims and stay discovery denied

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

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

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

This is how to handle the privilege and work product process

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

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

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

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

Date of Decision: December 5, 2019

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

COURT ALLOWS FOR POSSIBILITY OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH, EVEN WHERE NO BENEFIT DUE – BUT STILL DENIES CLAIM (Western District)

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The court determined no coverage was due under a policy exclusion in this water damage case. Thus, there could be no statutory bad faith claim on the basis coverage was improperly denied.

However, even though no benefit was denied under the policy, the court concluded that denial of a benefit was only one type of statutory bad faith. Under this view, failures to investigate facts, communicate with insureds, or do proper legal research could still create actionable bad faith claims even if no duty to indemnify or defend exists under the policy. [Note: As this Blog has set forth on many occasions, this view is questionable, i.e., the denial of a benefit is a sine qua non of statutory bad faith, and poor investigation or communication are only evidence of bad faith where a benefit has been denied, and cannot be a stand-alone basis for bad faith claims where no benefit is denied.]

Even under this broader standard, the court granted the insurer summary judgment. The insured asserted inadequate investigation bad faith concerning the cause of water damage in this case. It alleged the investigation was too brief, the inspector did not investigate all areas of the property, and did not communicate with the insured about the loss. The plaintiff admitted the adjuster did investigate a burst public water supply pipe from which all of the alleged property damage originated.

The court found because the policy excluded losses originating from a burst water supply pipe, there was in fact no need for any further investigation. “Under these circumstances, any additional investigation would not have changed the outcome of [the] decision to deny [the insured’s] claim.” Thus, there was insufficient “evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] performed an inadequate investigation or otherwise acted in bad faith in its handling [the] claim.” [Note: It is clear that the policy’s coverage language defining benefits due informed the court’s decision on what constituted a reasonable investigation.]

Thus, summary judgment was granted on the bases that there was no improper benefit denial, and no bad faith investigation.

Date of Decision: November 21, 2019

Sypherd Enterprises, Inc. v. Auto-Owners Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania 2022102:18-CV-00141-MJH, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 202210 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 2019) (Horan, J.)

It is interesting to compare this case to the statement of principles governing actionable statutory bad faith claim in last week’s post on Judge Beetlestone’s Purvi decision.

BAD FAITH CLAIM BIFURCATED AND STAYED; REQUEST TO DEPOSE INSURER’S COUNSEL QUASHED AS COVERAGE COUNSEL COMMUNICATING WITH INSURED IS COMMONPLACE AND DOES NOT MAKE COUNSEL A FACT WITNESS (Middle District)

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In this first-party property damage case, Judge Conner addressed a motion to sever and stay a bad faith claim, as well as a motion for a protective order to quash the deposition of the carrier’s coverage counsel, who was also defending the breach of contract and bad faith action.

Motion to Sever and Stay Results in Bifurcation and Stay

Judge Conner first noted the difference between a Rule 21 motion to sever and stay, and a Rule 42 motion to bifurcate, observing that severance results in two separate and distinct actions, resulting in separate judgments. In this case, the insurer had moved to sever, but also included in its motion bifurcation as a form of relief.

“Severance is appropriate when the claims are ‘discrete and separate,’ each capable of resolution without dependence or effect on the other.” Factors include whether the two claims will require different evidentiary proof, judicial economy, and party prejudice. Judge Conner observed the wealth of case law addressing severance and bifurcation in insurance bad faith cases, but noting that the cases go both ways.

As in other cases, the insurer here argued, “irreparable prejudice from premature and potentially unnecessary disclosure of otherwise privileged information, inefficiency in litigating a secondary claim of bad faith that may be mooted by resolution of the coverage claim, and jury confusion and the potential loss of [the insurer’s] chosen counsel if the claims proceed together.”

  1. The court agreed that the breach of contract claim and bad faith claim are separate and distinct, with only minor overlap. For example, “[i]nformation concerning how [the insurer] investigated and evaluated the coverage claim, its claims-handling policies, and its attorney and personnel communications regarding denial of coverage … are simply immaterial to the issue of whether coverage is required under the policy.”

  2. The court also found the prejudice element favored the insurer’s position. The insurer focused on revealing its attorneys’ advice, opinions and strategy as providing an undue advantage in the insured’s contract case, where such information would not otherwise be discoverable. The insured focused on increased litigation expenses.

Judge Conner found “that although both parties have proffered potential prejudice, [the insurer’s] likely injury from denying separation of these claims outweighs the possible increased costs identified by [the insured]. As [the insurer] correctly notes, attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine are long-held, venerated components of our legal system. …. Such protections are not absolute, but they should not be disregarded lightly. We do not dismiss [the insured’s] legitimate concern regarding litigation costs, but ultimately conclude that this factor also favors [the insurer].”

  1. On the judicial economy element, the court rejected the notion that a ruling denying coverage would moot the bad faith claim; instead observing that a bad faith claim can exist independently of a coverage denial. [Note: As recently reiterated on this Blog, there is a longstanding issue as to whether statutory bad faith can be pursued in Pennsylvania simply for poor claims handling, if there is no benefit due under the policy.] The court also rejected the notion that the likelihood of more complex discovery disputes if both actions are litigated together requires severance.

After weighing all factors, Judge Conner chose to bifurcate, rather than sever; and to stay discovery on the bad faith claim. He recognized other courts had ruled differently in insurance bad faith cases, but highlighted the fact that each case is unique, that judges have broad discretion, and that in “this” case bifurcation and stay were warranted.

Court denies insured’s request to depose the insurer’s counsel

The insured sought to depose the insurer’s defense counsel in the case, who was also involved in the underlying coverage dispute. The insurer moved to quash the deposition. As the only pending case was now the breach of contract claim, Judge Conner viewed the issue through that prism.

The insured argued that counsel acted as a claim investigator, and was thus a fact witness. However, it offered no support for that position. It sought to depose counsel to obtain his: “’thoughts and reasoning as to why certain information was or was not included in the denial letters,’ knowledge of the cause and extent of the loss, and reasons why ‘certain information was disregarded” and the claim ultimately denied.’” The court found this “either irrelevant to the breach of contract claim, privileged, discoverable through other means, or a combination thereof.”

“Furthermore, that [the insurer’s counsel] authored letters denying coverage and setting forth [the insurer’s] reasons for its denial has no bearing on whether his deposition is necessary on the breach of contract claim. The practice of insurers consulting with their attorney regarding coverage and having their attorney communicate with the insured is quite commonplace and does not transform [coverage counsel] into a fact witness.”

The court further recognized the potential issue that the deposition could result in counsel’s disqualification. This was another reason to quash the deposition in connection with the contract claim. Judge Conner did leave the door open for the insured to reassert its request to depose counsel in the bad faith case.

Dated: July 25, 2019

McFarland, LP v. Harford Mutual Insurance Cos., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:18-CV-1664, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124038 (M.D. Pa. July 25, 2019) (Conner, J.)

Our thanks to Dan Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.