NO BAD FAITH WHERE NO BENEFITS DENIED; NO PRIVATE ACTION UNDER UIPA OR UCSP REGULATIONS; NO DECEPTIVE CONDUCT IN NOTICE OF NEW ENDORSEMENT (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this case, the court makes clear that “Bad faith claims cover a range of conduct relating to the improper denial of benefits under the applicable contract.” The court quotes the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 593 Pa. 20, 928 A.2d 186, 199 (Pa. 2007), to highlight the point that statutory bad faith claims must relate to a denial of benefits: “’In other words, the term [bad faith] 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.’”

This first party property damage case centered on a policy endorsement changing the scope of coverage for access work done to repair leakage.

In 2015, the insureds had a homeowners policy with the carrier. In August 2015, while the policy was in effect, the carrier provided the insureds with notice of a new endorsement that would take effect on September 27, 2015. The notice stated that the new endorsement would potentially reduce coverage, and that “[a]lthough not intended to change coverage, this change could potentially reduce or eliminate coverage depending on how it is interpreted and, in that regard, should be viewed as either an actual or potential reduction in or elimination of coverage.”

The insureds renewed their homeowners policies in the ensuing years, apparently without ever questioning this endorsement. The property damage at issue occurred in September 2018, when the insured homeowners had their plumber do certain repair work to fix a leak, including access work to get to damaged plumbing. The insureds allege that the carrier improperly refused to pay the full bill for the access work, while the carrier relied on the 2015 endorsement in justifying its lower than hoped for payment.

The homeowners brought individual and class action counts, seeking declaratory relief, as well as claims for breach of contract, violations of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL), the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA), Pennsylvania’s Unfair Claims Settlement Practices regulations (UCSP), and for statutory bad faith. The insurer moved to dismiss all claims.

Declaratory judgment and contract claims dismissed without prejudice

The insureds argued the 2015 endorsement was unconscionable and should be rendered void; but even if enforceable, it still required greater payment than the carrier made for the cost of the access work. The court, however, dismissed the declaratory judgment claim and breach of contract claim on these grounds, but without prejudice if plaintiffs could plead additional facts to support these claims.

Bad faith claim dismissed without prejudice

The essence of the insureds’ bad faith claims is that the notice accompanying the 2015 endorsement promised greater coverage, but gave less coverage. The court found this could not state a bad faith claim because these claims did not involve the denial of a benefit. “Section 8371 encompasses a variety of insurer conduct, but such conduct must be related to the denial of benefits.” Though “’the alleged bad faith need not be limited to the literal act of denying a claim, the essence of a bad faith claim must be the unreasonable and intentional (or reckless) denial of benefits.’”

In this case the “Plaintiffs’ allegations do not relate to the denial of coverage of the access bill, they relate to the Endorsement notice’s language and how Defendant engaged in alleged misrepresentation because of the purportedly confusing notice.” A “claim that the drafting of policy language was in bad faith is not actionable under Pennsylvania law….” In making this point, the court relied on Mitch’s Auto Service Center, Inc. v. State Automobile Mutual Insurance Co. As stated above, it relied on Toy v. Metropolitan Life for the fundamental point that statutory bad faith claims must include the denial of a benefit.

The court also specifically observed the complaint was “devoid of any facts indicating Defendant lacked a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy.” Likewise, there were no plausible allegations that the insurer “knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis.” The insureds argued that the 2015 notice language could be the basis of a bad faith claim. The court failed to see, however, “how that notice, provided to Plaintiffs three years prior to the water damage here, shows that Defendant knew or recklessly disregarded its alleged lack of reasonable basis in denying Plaintiffs’ entire costs for the plumber’s access bill.”

Still, the court dismissed without prejudice if the insureds could replead a plausible bad faith claim.

UIPA and UCSP regulations claims dismissed with prejudice

The insureds conceded that there is no private cause of action under Pennsylvania’s UIPA, 40 P.S. § 1171.1, or UCSPR, 31 Pa. Code §§ 146.1. The court cited Leach v. Northwestern Mut. Ins. Co., 262 F. App’x 455 (3d Cir. 2008), Swan Caterers, Inc. v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., No. 12-0024, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162305, 2012 WL 5508371 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 13, 2012) and Connolly v. ReliaStar Life Ins. Co., No. 03-5444, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83440, 2006 WL 3355184 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 13, 2006) for the proposition that there is no private cause of action under the UIPA or UCSP regulations, and the statute and regulations can only be enforced by the insurance commissioner.

UTPCPL claim dismissed without prejudice

The court dismissed the UTPCPL claim without prejudice, finding the 2015 notice did not constitute a deceptive act, because “the notice’s language explicitly states that the policyholder should treat the change as a reduction in coverage.” The court further found justifiable reliance was not pleaded, as there were no allegations that the insureds relied on any alleged misconduct causing them to purchase the policy.

Dates of Decision: March 27, 2020 (Report and Recommendation) and April 22, 2020 (District Court Order)

Velazquez v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-cv-3128, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55854 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 27, 2020) (Sitarski, M.J.) (Report and Recommendation), approved and adopted by the District Court (April 22, 2020) (Quiñones Alejandro, J.)

 

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