MAY 2018 BAD FAITH CASES: (1) DENIAL OF BENEFITS (2) INADEQUATE INVESTIGATION AND (3) UNREASONABLE DELAY AS POTENTIAL BASES FOR STATUTORY BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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This post includes two opinions from consecutive days issued by the same judge in the Eastern District. In these two opinions, the court sets forth various standards for pursuing potential statutory bad faith claims, including (1) benefit denial; or (2) unreasonable investigations; or (3) delays in either (a) the claim handling process or (b) paying benefits due. As noted before on this blog, there is an issue whether statutory bad faith can exist for poor investigation or claim handling practices where no benefit was due.

CASE 1

In the first case, the insurer denied disability benefits. The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith. The bad faith claim was based on two theories: (1) unreasonable denial of benefits and (2) improper claim handling during the investigation. The court denied the motion to dismiss the coverage based bad faith claim for denying benefits, but granted the motion to dismiss the bad faith claim based on an inadequate investigation.

DENIAL OF BENEFIT BAD FAITH

The court’s bad faith analysis began with basic statements of statutory bad faith law:

  1. “To establish bad faith under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the insurer (1) lacked a reasonable basis for denying benefits and (2) knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis.”

  2. “In the insurance context, bad faith denotes a ‘frivolous or unfounded’ refusal to pay policy proceeds, which imports a dishonest purpose and a breach of a known duty, such as good faith and fair dealing.”

  3. “To defeat a claim of bad faith an insurer need not show that the insurer was correct; rather, an insurer must demonstrate that it had a reasonable basis for its decision to deny benefits.”

  4. “A reasonable basis is all that is required to defeat a claim of bad faith.”

  5. “On the other hand, ‘an unreasonable interpretation of the policy provisions as well as a blatant misrepresentation of the facts or policy provisions will support a bad faith claim.’”

INADEQUATE INVESTIGATION BAD FAITH

These principles, however, were not the sole means to define bad faith. The court cited case law for potential bad faith conduct that went beyond these basic parameters, beginning with the proposition that “[s]ection 8371 also encompasses a broad range of other conduct including inadequate investigations.”

Concerning “inadequate investigation” bad faith, the court stated the following:

  1. “Courts have held that an insurer must ‘properly investigate claims prior to refusing to pay the proceeds of the policy to its insured.’”

  2. “Bad faith may occur ‘when an insurance company makes an inadequate investigation or fails to perform adequate legal research concerning a coverage issue.’”

  3. An insurer, however, need not demonstrate that its investigation resulted in the correct conclusion or that its investigation was perfect; rather it must simply show that its investigation was ‘sufficiently thorough to justify its decision to deny the claim.’”

The insured’s amended complaint based her bad faith claims on two distinct theories: “(1) a denial of benefits predicated either on an unreasonable interpretation of the terms and conditions of the Policy or on imposition of requirements that do not exist in the Policy; and (2) a failure to conduct a reasonable or adequate investigation into the nature and extent of either Plaintiff’s physical condition or Plaintiff’s occupation.”

The court refused to dismiss under the first theory, finding that factual issues remained on the coverage questions. However, it did dismiss the bad faith claim under the second theory. Although the plaintiff had added some allegations to support her inadequate investigation claim, “[t]hese additional allegations fail to successfully move Plaintiff’s bad faith claim from the realm of mere possibility to that of plausibility.”

Exhibits to the amended complaint showed, among other things, that the insurer had considered the insured’s medical information as well as statements regarding her occupational duties. Further, the insured failed to report her disability for years, with this delay and its consequences solely her responsibility. As the court summed up its dismissal: “Although Defendant’s investigation may not have been perfect, the allegations of the Amended Complaint do not raise a plausible inference that it was so deficient as to rise to the level of bad faith.”

Date of Decision: May 22, 2018

Wiessmann v. Northwestern Mutual Life Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 16-6261, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86103 (E.D. Pa. May 22, 2018) (Goldberg, J.)

CASE 2

The second case involved UIM breach of contract and bad faith claims. The insurer moved for summary judgment on the bad faith claim. In carrying out its bad faith analysis, the court observes the same principles quoted above concerning denial of benefits, burden of proof, and inadequate investigation, but also adds more detailed principles concerning delay as a basis for bad faith.

Similar to the first decision, the court initially observes basic bad faith principles: “In Pennsylvania, ‘bad faith’ in insurance cases is defined as ‘any frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay proceeds of a policy. … Bad faith must be demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence, ‘a burden that applies even on summary judgment.’ … To establish bad faith under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the insurer (1) lacked a reasonable basis for denying benefits and (2) knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis. … In the insurance context, bad faith denotes a ‘frivolous or unfounded’ refusal to pay policy proceeds, which imports a dishonest purpose and a breach of a known duty, such as good faith and fair dealing. … While mere negligence or bad judgment are insufficient, a showing of reckless disregard will suffice to establish bad faith.”

UNREASONABLE DELAY BAD FAITH

Next, as in the first case, the court states “Section 8371 is not restricted to an insurer’s bad faith in denying a claim. An action for bad faith may extend to the insurer’s investigative practices.” The court then observes standards for another measure of bad faith not detailed in the first opinion: “A bad faith insurance practice can also include an unreasonable delay in handling or paying claims. … Thus, even when ‘an insurance claim has been settled and paid, Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute provides insurance claimants a means of redressing unreasonable delays by their insurers.’”

The court sets forth the following principles concerning bad faith delay claims:

  1. “To establish a claim of bad faith based on the insurer’s delay in paying the claim, the plaintiff must show that (1) the delay was attributable to the insurer; (2) the insurer had no reasonable basis for causing the delay; and (3) the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded the lack of a reasonable basis for the delay.”

  2. The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing delay by clear and convincing evidence.”

  3. A long period of time between demand and settlement does not, on its own, necessarily constitute bad faith.”

  4. “[I]f delay is attributable to the need to investigate further or even to simple negligence, no bad faith has occurred.”

The court uses examples from prior case law to show specific time periods that did not constitute bad faith delays. In one precedent, “a delay of fifteen months to resolve a claim—during which the insurer took the insured’s deposition nine months after notification of the claim, waited one year before taking the insured’s deposition and waited fourteen months to obtain a vocational assessment—was not an unreasonable length of time so as to rise to the level of bad faith, even though the insurer could have completed its investigation with greater speed”. In another, “even if all delay were attributable to the insurer, a period of approximately thirteen months between notification of UIM claim and resolution of claim through arbitration would not, without more, be sufficient to establish bad faith”.

In applying these principles, the court lays out a detailed factual history of the insurer’s claim handling during the adjuster’s investigation, including the history of communications between the adjuster and the insured’s attorney and requests for various documents and records. Despite this detailed factual record, however, the insured solely relied on his complaint’s averments to oppose summary judgment. These amounted to conclusory allegations that could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard.

Independently, the court found “the undisputed evidence reveal[ed] no bad faith investigation or delay on Defendant’s part.” In conclusion, the court observed that “any delay was attributable to both Defendant’s well-founded need to investigate the claim and Plaintiff’s own delays in providing the requested information. Based on this undisputed record, no reasonable factfinder could determine that Defendant acted in bad faith in investigating and/or evaluating Plaintiff’s UIM claim.” Thus, the court granted summary judgment on the bad faith claim.

Date of Decision: May 23, 2018

Williams v. Liberty Mutual Insurance, U. S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 17-3862, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86356 (E.D. Pa. May 23, 2018) (Goldberg, J.)

 

 

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