Archive for the 'PA – Claims Handling (general)' Category

NO BAD FAITH WHERE “RED FLAGS” EXISTED THAT COULD UNDERMINE COVERAGE; RULE TO FILE COMPLAINT NOT BAD FAITH (Middle District)

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This case involved an auto accident death, and whether the deceased was an insured “family member” under his stepfather’s auto policy.  Coverage depends on whether the deceased resided with the named insured/step-father at the time of the accident.  The stepfather brought breach of contract and bad faith claims, on behalf of his stepson’s estate.

The court denied summary judgment to both parties on the coverage issues, as material facts remained open on the coverage issued.  As Judge Mannion states, “[i]n short, there exist too many disputed material facts as to whether [the stepson] was a ‘family member’ of plaintiff’s household at the time of the accident.”

The court did grant the insurer summary judgment on the bad faith claim, as plaintiff could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard necessary to prove bad faith.

Judge Mannion observed that during its investigation, the insurer discovered that the stepson might not have met the definition of “family member” under the policy.  There were statements from two people that the stepson with living with his girlfriend and her mother, not the stepfather; that the stepfather had removed the stepson from the policy at issue; and that the deceased had purchased his own vehicle with its own insurance policy, and that policy had an address other than the stepfather’s address at the time of the accident.

While the stepson’s driver’s license and tax returns did indicate he resided with his stepfather, the insurer “certainly had sufficient evidence that showed [the stepson’s] physical residence was at [the girlfriend’s] house.”

Red flags oblige the insurer to investigate thoroughly

Looking at all the circumstances, Judge Mannion observed that “[u]nder Pennsylvania law, insurers are permitted to ‘conduct a thorough investigation’ of a questionable claim without acting in bad faith”, and “[w]here an insurer sees red flags’ that cause concern of insurance fraud and prompt an investigation, the insurer has a reasonable basis for investigation, and is therefore not liable for claims of bad faith.”  Here, the insurer “had more than a reasonable basis to investigate where [the stepson] was really residing at the time of the accident since it had ample evidence to show that he may have moved out of plaintiff’s house months before the accident.”

Under these circumstances, the insurer was “entitled to conduct its own investigation and its finding that [the stepson] was not residing with plaintiff and was not a covered family member as defined in plaintiff’s Policy was reasonably based on evidence it uncovered. Thus, defendant’s denial [of] plaintiff’s UIM claim made on behalf of [the stepson’s] Estate was not an act in reckless disregard of its obligations under plaintiff’s Policy.”

Rule to file a complaint not bad faith

The court also rejected the notion that the insurer acted “outrageously” in filing a rule to file a complaint, after plaintiff had initiated the action by way of writ of summons.  The insurer sought to have a complaint filed because it lacked information, and “instructed plaintiff to file a complaint so that it could develop the facts as to [the stepson’s] residence.” Judge Mannion added, “[i]ndeed, as defendant points out, the court held in Fabrikant v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., [a summary of which can be found here] …. that ‘an insurer’s exercising its procedural right to serve a Rule to File Complaint is not bad faith, absent a showing of clear and convincing evidence that such action was taken in bad faith.’” Here the insurer “was obliged to investigate where [the deceased] was physically residing at the time of the accident in order to properly consider plaintiff’s UIM claim, especially since there was evidence that his residence was at [another] house.” [Emphasis added]

Date of Decision:  April 1, 2021

Fuentes v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania, No. CV 3:19-1111, 2021 WL 1225934 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 1, 2021) (Mannion, J.)

INSURER NOT REQUIRED TO PRODUCE PERSONNEL FILE, BUT IS REQUIRED TO (1) PROVIDE CORPORATE DESIGNEE FOR DEPOSITION, (2) PRODUCE MANUALS AND TRAINING MATERIALS WITHIN CERTAIN TIME/GEOGRAPHIC LIMITS, AND (3) PROVIDE CLAIMS FILES TO THE COURT FOR IN CAMERA REVIEW ON PRIVILEGE AND WORK PRODUCT (Philadelphia Federal)

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The instant dispute involves the depositions of the claims handler and a corporate designee, as well as the scope of document discovery. The insurer made extensive objections to document requests accompanying the notices of deposition, and the any deposition of a corporate designee.  These are described in detail below.

This UIM bad faith case survived an earlier motion to dismiss, and was now proceeding on the merits before Magistrate Judge Perkin.  (Judge Leeson’s 2020 decision allowing the case to proceed is summarized here.)

General Discovery Principles

Magistrate Judge Perkin set out the basic principles guiding his decision:

  1. Rule 26 allows parties to “obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case[.]”

  2. “Relevance is a broad concept that encompass[es] any matter that bears on, or that reasonably could lead to other matter that could bear on, any issue that is or may be in the case.”

  3. “As an initial matter, therefore, all relevant material is discoverable unless an applicable evidentiary privilege is asserted. The presumption that such matter is discoverable, however, is defeasible.”

  4. “While the discovery rules are meant to be construed liberally, the responses sought [by a party] must comport with the traditional notions of relevancy and must not impose an undue burden on the responding party.”

  5. “To determine the scope of discoverable information under Rule 26(b)(1), the Court looks initially to the pleadings.”

  6. “In deciding which materials are discoverable and which are not, a district court must further distinguish between requests that ‘appear[ ] reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence’ … and demands that are ‘overly broad and unduly burdensome.’”

Documents Requested in Connection with the Claim Handler’s Deposition

The insured did not object to the claim handler’s deposition, but did make multiple objections to the document requests accompanying the notice of deposition.

Manuals and Training Documents Subject to Limited Discovery

Plaintiff’s first request was for “[a]ny and all documents, policies, procedures, rules, regulations, manuals, training documents, or other documents or things relevant to the handling and/or evaluation of Underinsured Motorists claims during the period of 2015-2020.”

Plaintiff’s second request was for “[a] true and correct copy of the complete “Claims Manual/Claims Office Manual” or other such similar document(s) by whatever name or title used by Defendants for the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

Plaintiff’s third request was for “[a] true and correct copy of the complete “Training Manual” or other such similar document(s) by whatever name or title used by Defendant for the purpose of training its employees in the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits claims for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

Plaintiff’s fourth request was for “[t]rue and correct copies of any and all claims bulletins, internal memoranda, letters, notices, or similar documents sent by management to the claims staff relating to the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits claims for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

The court found the first request relevant to both the breach of contract and bad faith claims, specifically ruling that manuals and other training materials are relevant to bad faith claims “where they contain instructions concerning procedures used by employees in processing claims.” Magistrate Judge Perkin added that “[t]raining materials ‘relevant to processing the claim in question’ are discoverable, as they may show, inter alia, ‘that agents of an insurance company recklessly disregarded standard interpretations of a particular contractual provision in denying coverage or deliberatively omitted certain investigatory steps.’”

However, Magistrate Judge Perkin agreed with the insurer that plaintiff’s requests were “overly broad in time, and should be limited to the period from when Defendant was first on notice of a UIM claim through the present.” First notice was when the insurer received correspondence from Plaintiff’s counsel informing Defendant of an anticipated underinsured motorist claim.

Magistrate Judge Perkin limited the geographic scope as well, “to those documents and materials governing underinsured motorist claims in Pennsylvania,” where the underlying accident occurred, where plaintiff resided, and the policy provided for UIM benefits under Pennsylvania law.

Magistrate Judge Perkin rejected the argument that the materials were trade secrets or proprietary in nature, pointing out there was no showing made to this effect but only “bare allegations that the information requested falls under this definition” which were insufficient “to protect such information from discovery.”

The court used the same analysis to address document requests 2-4.

Court Permits Discovery, with Limitations, of Claim Handling and Investigation Files

Plaintiff requested “[t]rue and correct copies of any and all letters, correspondence, documents, reports, or other records which relate to review, evaluation, and/or assessment of the causation or lack thereof of Plaintiff’s injuries following the underlying motor vehicle accident which was relied upon in the handling, assessment, investigation, and/or evaluation of Plaintiff’s UIM claim.”

Plaintiff also requested “[a]ny and all claims, notes, correspondence, records, recordings, documents, letters, phone logs, emails, or other communication writings or things pertaining to [the claim] from October 12, 2016 through present.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin observed that “an insurer, is not permitted to shield the discovery of its entire claims handling and investigation under the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine by hiring an attorney to perform its services. As Plaintiff noted in her brief, a bad faith claim may include “evidence of the insurer’s bad faith that occurred after the filing of the complaint.” The court reviewed the insurer’s privilege log and redacted documents, but could not determine whether the attorney-client privilege or work product doctrine actually applied. Thus, Magistrate Judge Perkin ordered the insurer to make the full documents available for in camera review, including “internal file notes regarding communications with legal counsel … ; UIM strategy and evaluation; claim handling[;] Amount of reserves and legal expenses on the UIM and Medical Payment claims[;] … Evaluation Report for Plaintiff’s UIM claim [;] … internal emails regarding receipt of this lawsuit, and assignment to legal counsel … [;] ISO Claim Search report[; and] Asset report regarding [the tortfeasor driver], for consent to settle/waiver of UIM subrogation purposes[.]”

The second request quoted above was also subject to in camera review for the same reasons. The court added that “[t]o the extent that Defendant maintains any of the requested material outside of the web-based system, it shall produce such information immediately to Plaintiff unless it is appropriately protected by a privilege.”

These were limited to the time period from the date the insurer first had notice, as described above.

The insurer also requested “[a]ny and all claim files concerning Plaintiff’s claim for underinsured motorist benefits, in paper, electronic, and/or other available format.” Magistrate Judge Perkin ruled that “[a]s with the previous two requests, this Court will conduct an in camera review to determine if Defendant properly withheld documents related to this request. Defendant is not required to perform forensic investigation into its computing devices or systems to locate information existing prior to when Defendant’s duty to preserve evidence arose which is no longer accessible. Similarly, Defendant does not need to produce the same ESI in more than one form. Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(b)(2)(E)(iii). If Defendant maintains any information responsive to the above request in non-electronic forms, it shall produce such information immediately to Plaintiff unless it duplicative of what has already been produced or properly protected by a privilege.” [Emphasis in original]

Insurer not Compelled to Produce Personnel Files

The insured requested “[p]ersonnel file, including applications for employment, evaluations, awards, commendations, complaints, reprimands, resumes, attendance records for the period of 2016-2018, tests, performance appraisals, documents reflecting job performance and/or employee conduct, letters of commendation, reprimands, letters of termination, personnel action notices, investigative files and reports concerning or substantially concerning [the specific] Claims Specialist, only.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin ruled “[t]he request for personnel information implicates the strong public policy against disclosure of such materials.” Thus, “[w]hile information relating to [the claim handler’s] employment and job performance may be relevant to Plaintiff’s bad faith claim, Plaintiff may learn this information through less invasive means, such as by deposition or interrogatory. … Accordingly, while Plaintiff may obtain the employment information it seeks by deposing [the claim handler], or through interrogatories, Defendant is not compelled to produce the materials relating to the above request.”

Deposition of Corporate Designee Permitted

The court observed that corporate designees are called to testify about their personal knowledge only, but also to speak for the corporation “about matters to which the corporation has reasonable access.” In this case, the insured’s bad faith claim included allegations beyond valuation, “but also claims that defendant mishandled, failed to properly investigate and evaluate the claim and otherwise acted in bad faith.” Plaintiff wanted the 30(b)(6) designee “to represent the collective knowledge of the corporation and to present its positions on certain topics [,] including … “the manner and method of how Defendant instructs, advises, directs, and incentivizes its employees to handle claims is directly related to what, if anything, the adjuster(s) did in handling this claim and why.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin refused to quash the corporate designee’s deposition, finding the insured was “entitled to depose the corporate representative and obtain an official explanation of the claims-handling policies used by” the insurer.

He did not, however, stop there.  Rather, Magistrate Judge Perkin addressed objections to individual matters designated for examination and individual document requests accompanying the subpoena.

  1. “1st Matter for Examination: The thoughts, analysis, evaluation(s), rationale(s), investigation, actions, research, review, and reasoning of the handling adjuster’s supervisor at Defendant insurance company who personally participated in the decision to offer $6,000 on or about October 25, 2019, to resolve Plaintiff’s claim. (The term “participated” as used in this paragraph includes, without limitation, reviewed any documents, analyzed and/or discussed the matter with anyone, approved the offer of compromise or provided any information or input whatsoever into the decision).”

Magistrate Judge Perkin reserved ruling on this area of examination until after he had conducted the in camera review described above.

  1. “2nd Matter for Examination: The existence and content of any writings, files, procedures, claims-handling procedures, guidelines, claims manuals, or documents of any kind including any material contained in any computer which existed at any time from 2015 to the present, applicable to the handling and adjustment of Plaintiff’s claim.”

Magistrate Judge Pekin permitted this area of examination, to allow for questioning on “[t]he existence and content of any writings, files, procedures, claims-handling procedures, guidelines, claims manuals, or documents of any kind which existed from March 16, 2017 through 2020, applicable to the handling and adjustment of Plaintiff’s claim.”

  1. “3rd Matter for Examination: Defendant’s claims handling manuals, guidelines, or any other documents used to instruct personnel on the claims handling and/or adjustment practice used by State Farm to instruct/train/educate/direct or otherwise teach its claims adjusters to adjust first-party Underinsured Motorists (“UIM”) claims as of October 1, 2015.”

The court found this area of questioning relevant, within time and geographic limits, stating “[d]efendant’s claims handling manuals, guidelines, or any other documents used to instruct personnel on the claims handling and/or adjustment practice used by [the insurer] to instruct/train/educate/direct or otherwise teach its claims adjusters to adjust first-party Underinsured Motorists (“UIM”) claims in Pennsylvania from March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “4th Matter for Examination: State Farm’s policy, practice and procedure for promotion of claims representatives and/or adjusters within State Farm as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

The court found the insurer’s “policies, practices, and procedures for promotions of claims representatives and adjusters is relevant to its claim of bad faith. To the extent that there are employee incentives to close out insureds’ claims, or handle claims in a particular manner, such information could reveal facts relevant to the motivations of the employees who handled Plaintiff’s claim.” Discovery was thus allowed, within a limited time frame.

  1. “5th Matter for Examination: Defendant’s training materials, practices, and procedures for claims adjusters handling UIM claims as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

The court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Defendant’s training materials, practices, and procedures for claims adjusters handling UIM claims in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “6th Matter for Examination: Defendant’s methods, policies, procedures, and practices used to calculate the value of damages in a UIM claim as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Defendant’s methods, policies, procedures, and practices used to calculate the value of damages in a UIM claim in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “7th Matter for Examination: Any and all materials provided to claims adjusters handling UIM claims for the purpose of training claims adjusters and/or representatives as to calculating, evaluation, assessing, and determining value of damages as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Any and all materials provided to claims adjusters handling UIM claims in Pennsylvania for the purpose of training claims adjusters and/or representatives as to calculating, evaluation, assessing, and determining value of damages as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “8th Matter for Examination: The policies and procedures for evaluating, assessing, and investigating personal injuries to an insured in a UIM claim as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “The policies and procedures for evaluating, assessing, and investigating personal injuries to an insured in a UIM claim in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

The court next addressed the document requests accompanying the corporate designee’s notice of deposition.

  1. “Request 1: Any and all claims manuals, reference materials, training manuals, and/or guidelines for interpretation of the relevant insurance policy.”

Following his analysis in addressing the document requests accompanying the claim handler’s notice of deposition, Magistrate Judge Perkin found the request relevant to the bad faith claim, within the limited time period.  To the extent the response would be identical to the other request, however, he would not require a separate production; rather, the defendant could cross reference that earlier production to bates numbers.

  1. “Request 2: Any and all documents, materials, manuals, guides, claims manuals, handbooks, training materials or other items relating to the topics set forth above.”

Again following the same request to the claim handler, the documents were relevant to the bad faith claim within a limited time period, and the same process of cross-referencing to bates numbers could be followed.

  1. “Request 3: The personnel files of all company employees who worked on Plaintiff’s UIM claim.”

Again following the earlier analysis, the insurer was not required to produce written materials, leaving the insured to pursue that employment information through the deposition or interrogatories.

Date of Decision:  January 22, 2021

SOLANO-SANCHEZ v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTO INSURANCE COMPANY, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-4016, 2021 WL 229400 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 22, 2021) (Perkin, M.J.)

NO BAD FAITH FOR EVEN NEGLIGENT CLAIM HANDLING, AND WHERE INSURER’S POSITION WAS SUPPORTED BY AN EXPERT (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM bad faith case had survived a motion to dismiss, but summary judgment ended the plaintiff’s bad faith claim.

Eastern District Judge Leeson had originally allowed the bad faith claim to proceed, as plaintiff had alleged more than a valuation dispute.  Our prior blog post can be found here.

The present bad faith summary judgment motion was before Magistrate Judge Perkin. His opinion goes through the claim handling history in minute detail.  Among other things, it shows nearly a year passed before the insured provided the claim handlers with all medical records and details on the specific injuries for which he was seeking full UIM policy limits.  The record shows the insurer assigned a specialist in medical resources (SMR) to review the medical file, and later had a medical examination performed by a physician. Discovery appeared to show potential errors in the SMR’s evaluation.

Based on the medical reviews, the insurer had not paid its full UIM limits, as plaintiff demanded, at the time suit was filed.  The insured challenged the conclusions of both the SMR and the physician on the origin and scope of his injuries in bringing the bad faith claim.

Magistrate Judge Perkin observed that an “insurance company need not show that the process used to reach its conclusion was flawless or that its investigatory methods eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusions. Rather, an insurance company simply must show that it conducted a review or investigation sufficiently thorough to yield a reasonable foundation for its action.”  Thus, “[e]ven if Defendant’s claims-handling processes were not ideal, there is no evidence in the record, let alone clear and convincing evidence, to indicate that Defendant’s purported mishandling of Plaintiff’s claim was motivated by a dishonest purpose or ill will.”

Citing older case law, the court states, “while under Pennsylvania law bad faith may extend to an insurer’s investigation and other conduct in handling the claim, that conduct must ‘import a dishonest purpose.’” “Invariably, this requires that the insurer lack a reasonable basis for denying coverage, as mere negligence or aggressive protection of an insurer’s interests is not bad faith.”

[Note: In 2017, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court made clear in Rancosky that “we hold that proof of an insurance company’s motive of self-interest or ill-will is not a prerequisite to prevailing in a bad faith claim under Section 8371, as argued by Appellant. While such evidence is probative of the second Terletsky prong, we hold that evidence of the insurer’s knowledge or recklessness as to its lack of a reasonable basis in denying policy benefits is sufficient.” A link to our Rancosky summary can be found here.]

Applying this law to the facts, Magistrate Judge Perkin found that “[a]lthough the plaintiff disagrees with the conclusions of both [the SMR and the carrier’s physician], it is clear that [the carrier] had a reasonable basis to value the claim based, at a minimum, on [the physician’s] report.” Assuming that the SMR “performed an insufficient and incorrect medical review of Plaintiff’s case, Defendant did not deny Plaintiff’s claim based upon that review, but rather continued its investigation of Plaintiff’s claim. Moreover, it is not apparent on the record that Defendant has ever denied coverage to Plaintiff.”

As to how the insurer handled the various bodily injury claims, the plaintiff’s doctors had sourced these all to the auto accident at issue, while the carrier’s physician only identified some of these injuries as being caused by the accident. Thus, Magistrate Judge Perkin found:

“Similarly, the fact that the plaintiff’s experts relate all of the plaintiff’s right knee and left ankle complaints to the accident does not provide a basis for bad faith. Defendant retained [an] orthopedic surgeon … to perform an independent medical examination and records review. After completing same, [defendant’s surgeon] concluded that that only the plaintiff’s initial meniscal tear and resultant arthroscopic surgery were related to the accident. None of the plaintiff’s left ankle complaints/treatments, or additional right knee treatment, was accident-related. Accordingly, [the carrier] had a reasonable basis for its claim handling.”

Date of Decision:  January 13, 2021

Perez-Garcia v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. CV 18-3783, 2021 WL 131343 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 13, 2021) (Perkin, M.J.)

INSURER COMPELLED TO PRODUCE “BEST PRACTICES” GUIDE (Western District)

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In this case, Western District Magistrate Judge Kelly ordered production of the insurer’s claim handling guidelines.

The insurer denied UIM coverage, claiming the insureds waived their benefits. The carrier conceded its UIM waiver forms did not comply with Pennsylvania law, but took the position it still properly denied the claim under the circumstances.  The insureds sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The insured’s document requests sought “all written policies, claims and manuals, company manuals, operational guidelines, and/or any other policies, procedures, guidelines, manuals, and/or instructional/educational material pertaining to the handling of underinsured motorist claims ….” The insurer objected on the basis that these documents were confidential and proprietary, but that “if plaintiffs’ counsel will agree to sign a confidentiality order, [the insurer] will produce a copy of the Table of Contents for its claims manual and the plaintiffs can identify which chapter or chapters they believe they need to review.”

The carrier later stated there were no claim manuals, but rather the insurer maintained a “Best Practices” guide. The insurer produced part of its Best Practices guide, with redactions and removed pages, regarding liability, subrogation, and first party medical benefits. The redactions were not specifically identified and there was no privilege log.

The insured moved to compel greater production.

The carrier responded that “evidence of claims handling is irrelevant to this proceeding because the … claim was ‘never ‘handled’ since [the carrier] concluded there was nothing to handle.” It also took the position that neither liability nor the nature and extent of the injuries were in dispute, and the only issue was whether coverage was properly denied.

Separately, the carrier objected to production because such “production would otherwise cause it harm based on the nature of the plaintiffs’ counsel’s law firm; that is, a well-advertised law firm that represents ‘injured people.’” Apparently, the carrier was concerned that plaintiffs’ counsel would use its manual in future lawsuits, brought by different plaintiffs against the insurer.

In addressing the insureds’ motion to compel, the court first observed that claims manuals and training materials are “relevant [in bad faith cases] because the manuals contain instructions concerning procedures used by insurance company employees in handling UIM claims, like Plaintiffs’ claims herein. Though departures from established standards in handling a UIM claim would not alone establish bad faith, such information ‘is probative evidence for plaintiff to demonstrate bad faith.’”

The court rejected the insurer’s argument that it did not have to produce these materials because there had been no claim handling. “That [the insurer] failed to process the claim at all does not necessarily render guidelines as to how claims are ordinarily processed irrelevant and, at this stage of the proceedings, it cannot be said that the information sought is unrelated to the facts at issue.” The insureds had agreed that discovery could have some limits, and the insurer did not have to produce materials in the Best Practices guide “pertaining to rental vehicles, property damage, vehicle theft, and other sections unrelated to the evaluat[ion] and/or handling of an injury claim….”

Thus, the insureds “met their initial burden to establish the relevance of the requested material within the broad scope of permissible discovery and [the insurer] failed to adequately show that the information, limited to the handling of UIM claims for bodily injury, is irrelevant simply because it denied the claim.”

As to the second objection, the court found nothing in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure imposing a discovery “limitation based on a law firm’s advertising budget or the nature of its legal representation of injured persons….” Any concern that these materials might be used in some future litigation could be addressed with plaintiff’s counsel in negotiating and drafting an appropriate confidentiality agreement.

Thus, the insurer had to produce the Best Practices guide, with only the redactions and limitations described above.

Date of Decision: December 9, 2020

Keeler v. Esurance Insurance Services, Inc., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-271, 2020 WL 7239568 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 9, 2020) (Kelly, M.J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM DISMISSED FOR FAILURE TO PLEAD SUFFICIENT FACTS (THE FIVE Ws) TO ESTABLISH KNOWLEDGE OR RECKLESS DISREGARD (Philadelphia Federal)

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This is the latest of many 2020 bad faith cases dismissed for failing to allege more than conclusory allegations. It is the second opinion this month finding a bad faith plaintiff failed to plead the necessary scientir element, even if unreasonableness in denying a benefit was alleged sufficiently.

In this UIM breach of contract and bad faith case, the insured alleged “that (1) she provided notice of the loss and her intent to pursue underinsured motorist benefits from [the insurer], (2) she demanded payment and submitted medical records to substantiate that demand, (3) [the insurer] failed to investigate thoroughly and fairly, (4) [the insurer] failed to communicate with [the insured], (5) [the insurer] has refused to pay the demand, and (6) as a result, [the insured] has and continues to suffer loss and damages.”

The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim.

“A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint. To provide a defendant with fair notice, a plaintiff must provide ‘more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.’ Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The Third Circuit instructs the reviewing court to conduct a two-part analysis. First, any legal conclusions are separated from the well-pleaded factual allegations and disregarded. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Second, the court determines whether the facts alleged establish a plausible claim for relief.”

The present complaint “fails to include specific facts regarding [the insurer’s] actions, including those which would support a bad faith claim. District courts in this circuit ‘have routinely dismissed bad faith claims reciting only ‘bare-bones’ conclusory allegations unsupported by facts sufficient to raise the claims to a level of plausibility.’”

In support, Judge Pratter cites Judge Pappert’s Elican decision, Judge Slomsky’s Toner decision, and Judge Buckwalter’s Pasqualino decision.

The insured failed to plead the “Five Ws”, i.e., “the who, what, where, when, why,” “and how [the insurer’s] conduct plausibly constitutes bad faith.” Even where cursory claims might be sufficient to plausibly plead an unreasonable benefit denial, there still have to be sufficient allegations for a court to “plausibly infer that the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded a lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits.” This split between adequately alleging unreasonableness and knowledge was present in, e.g., Pasqualino.

More recently, just one day before Judge Pratter’s opinion issued in this case, Judge Quiñones Alejandro issued her opinion in White v. Travelers, summarized earlier this week. Just as in Judge Pratter’s opinion and Pasqualino, Judge Quiñones Alejandro found the insured failed to get beyond conclusory allegations in asserting the insurer acted knowingly or recklessly in denying a benefit.

Finally, Judge Pratter cited to the Third Circuit’s Smith opinion, summarized here, reminding parties and the courts that “the mere ‘failure to immediately accede to a demand for the policy limit cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.’”

Judge Pratter did give the insured leave to amend, rather than dismissing the bad faith claim with prejudice.

Date of Decision:  December 8, 2020

Satterfield v. GEICO, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-1400, 2020 WL 7229763 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 8, 2020) (Pratter, J.)

COURT PERMITS SOME UNDERWRITING DISCOVERY EVEN IN THE ABSENCE OF A STATUTORY BAD FAITH CLAIM (Middle District)

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The insurer denied coverage under a “regular use exclusion” in this UIM case. The complaint included a breach of contract claim, but no statutory bad faith claim. Plaintiff wanted to depose plaintiff’s corporate designee. The carrier argued the proposed deposition subjects were irrelevant to coverage, absent a bad faith claim, and moved for a protective order.

Middle District Magistrate Judge Saporito found that plaintiff could pursue certain limited discovery on underwriting, even absent a statutory bad faith claim. This was based primarily on the insurer raising the “regular use exclusion” as an affirmative defense, and the insureds alleging that the carrier owed “a fiduciary, contractual and statutory obligation to investigate, evaluate, and negotiate [her] UIM claim in good faith and to arrive at a prompt, fair, and equitable settlement.” [The reference to “statutory obligation” was not interpreted to mean plaintiffs were pleading a section 8371 statutory bad faith claim.]

Plaintiff had already deposed the carrier’s adjuster, but wanted a corporate designee to testify on the regular use exclusion and underwriting practices. This included the following subjects:

  1. The underwriting procedures in place … for the period January 1, 2017[,] through the current date;

  2. The underwriting regulations necessary to obtain the status of “preferred driver” under a … policy of insurance;

  3. The determinative factors and costs associated with UIM coverage …;

  4. The determinative factors and costs associated with UM coverage …;

  5. The determinative factors and costs associated with stacking of UIM coverage…;

  6. The determinative factors and costs associated with stacking of UM coverage …;

  7. The factors [the insurer] utilizes in determining whether a vehicle is available for the “regular use” of an insured;

  8. How the term “regular use” is defined in the applicable … policy and related documents;

  9. Whether the … regular use exclusion must be accompanied by a stacking waiver;

  10. All steps and measures [the insurer] takes to explain to its insureds the effect of the “regular use exclusion,” “household exclusion,” “family car exclusion,” and “unlisted driver exclusion”;

  11. How the regular use exclusion is discussed in the [insurer’s] Claims Manual; and

  12. Any facts supporting [the insurer’s] legal theories and defenses.

The court found that although the insureds did not allege statutory bad faith, they did plead breach of the contractual duty of good faith and fair dealing. Magistrate Judge Saporito found this sufficient to open the door to some greater discovery compared to a simple breach of contract case.  He relied on three cases permitting discovery on the carrier’s decisionmaking process, even in the absence of a statutory bad faith count. Rau v. Allstate, Swientisky v. American States, and Craker v. State Farm.

The court found the following areas of inquiry relevant and discoverable: factors used to determine “whether a vehicle is available for the ‘regular use’ of an insured”; “[h]ow the term ‘regular use’ is defined in the applicable … policy and related documents”; whether the “regular use exclusion must be accompanied by a stacking waiver”; “[h]ow the regular use exclusion is discussed in the [insurer’s] Claims Manual”; “[a]ny facts supporting [the insurer’s] legal theories and defenses”; and “[a]ll steps and measures [the insurer] takes to explain to its insureds the effect of the ‘regular use exclusion….”

On the other hand, discovery was not permitted on matters “irrelevant to the issue regarding the application of the ‘regular use exclusion,’ as they relate to underwriting procedures, underwriting regulations necessary to obtain the status of ‘preferred driver,’ and the determinative factors and costs associated with UIM and UM coverage as well as stacking for those coverages.” Discovery concerning other exclusions was also irrelevant.

Thus, discovery was specifically barred for “[t]he underwriting procedures in place … for the period January 1, 2017[,] through the current date”; underwriting regulations necessary to obtain preferred driver status;  “[t]he determinative factors and costs associated with UIM coverage”; “determinative factors and costs associated with UM coverage”; “determinative factors and costs associated with stacking of UIM coverage”; and “determinative factors and costs associated with stacking of UM coverage….”

Magistrate Judge Saporito further found the permitted discovery proportional, stating “the amount in controversy represents two-thirds of the total available insurance; [the insurer], as the drafter of the policy, has ready access to all relevant information especially regarding the denial of the claim; the importance of the discovery may be determinative of the issue whether the plaintiffs are entitled to any UIM benefits under the policy; and the burden of producing one witness is outweighed by the benefit in answering the questions about the validity of [the insurer’s] affirmative defense of the regular use exclusion.”

Date of Decision: November 4, 2020

Evanina v. The First Liberty Insurance Corporation, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:20-cv-00751, 2020 WL 6494883 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 4, 2020) (Saporito, Jr., M.J.)

PLAUSIBLE BAD FAITH WHERE INSURER’S POSITION RESULTS IN ILLUSORY COVERAGE; NO BAD FAITH WHERE NO COVERAGE DUE (Western District)

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This case centers on a dispute between the insureds and their homeowners carrier over whether the carrier had agreed to policy limit increases based on a multi-million dollar renovation.  The court details a series of alleged telephone communications between the insureds and the carrier, which the insureds claim committed the carrier to the policy limit increases.  This all occurred before the fire loss at issue.

In addition, the policy included a provision for “Home Protection Coverage”. This provision provides for a 25% coverage extension on existing policy limits.  “Essentially, the Home Protector Coverage’s purpose is to provide extended coverage in the event a homeowner’s losses exceed the policy’s coverage limits.”  The insureds also they did everything necessary for the Home Protection Coverage to be in place at the time of their fire loss.

The carrier asserted to the contrary that there was both no evidence properly documenting an increase in policy limits, or that the insureds met the requirements needed to receive the Home Protection Coverage. The insurer rejected claims for the higher limits and the Home Protection Coverage, and the insureds sued for breach of contract, statutory bad faith, promissory estoppel, and violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL).

Breach of Contract Claims Partially Survive

The court dismissed the breach of contract claim for extended policy limits, without prejudice. There was no plausible claim that a contract existed as such or through the reasonable expectations doctrine.

However, the court found the breach of contract claim for the “Home Protection Coverage” stated a plausible claim.  The court held that to find otherwise would make the relevant policy language illusory.

BAD FAITH

The court set forth various principles on statutory bad faith, though incorrectly stating that the insured must demonstrate some motive of self-interest or ill will.

Plausible Bad Faith Claim Stated for Pursuing Argument that would make Coverage Illusory

The court found the insureds stated a plausible bad faith claim as to the denial of Home Protection Coverage. The insureds alleged they paid their premiums, gave notice of renovations, and timely submitted their coverage claims. “Plaintiffs thus assert that Defendant ‘unreasonably denied the benefits’ and ‘had knowledge of their lack of reasonable basis for denying benefits.’”

More specifically, at the pleading stage, the Court had already “rejected carrier’s interpretation of the Home Protector Coverage … and thus cannot accept Defendant’s argument that its basis for denial of Home Protector Coverage was reasonable because Plaintiffs ‘could not show that their property was fully insured for replacement cost at policy inception.’ …. Such an interpretation would construct an illusory promise of coverage, which the Court has already determined it should not entertain.”

Failure to State Plausible Bad Faith Claim where no Coverage is Due

As to the bad faith claims concerning extending the policy limits, the Complaint did not set out a plausible claim.  As stated above, the court ruled the insureds failed to plead a plausible claim for breach of contract on extending policy limits through the various telephone communications or failing to reschedule an inspection. “As such, the Court agrees with Defendant that in ‘the absence of insurance coverage, there can be no bad faith by the insurer as a matter of law.’” As with the contract claim, dismissal was without prejudice.

Promissory Estoppel and UTPCPL

The court rejected that promissory estoppel could create or increase insurance coverage.  It allowed the claim to proceed, but solely as to amending allegations that could go to the breach of contract claims.

The court agreed that the UTPCPL could not create liability for claims handling. It was not clear to the court, however, whether the alleged deceptive conduct occurred at times other than during claims handling.

The court then carries out a fairly detailed analysis of significant UTPCPL concepts such as malfeasance vs. nonfeasance, pleading intent, pleading with particularity, and whether the gist of the action doctrine might apply.

The court concludes, “while Plaintiffs’ averments of deceptive conduct are not categorically barred by the UTPCPL to the extent set out above, Plaintiffs have not pled their claim with the level of particularity required by Pennsylvania law. Accordingly, the Court grants Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss … without prejudice and with leave to amend.”

Date of Decision: September 24, 2020

Luketich, v. USAA Casualty Insurance Company, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-00315, 2020 WL 5669017 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 24, 2020) (Hornak, J.)

THERE CANNOT BE A BAD FAITH CLAIM AGAINST AN INSURER IF THAT INSURER HAD NO DUTY TO DEFEND (Philadelphia Federal)

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A putative additional insured brought breach of contract and bad faith claims.  The insurer denied a defense and indemnification on the basis that the policy did not cover the additional insured. The court agreed, and then granted the carrier summary judgment on all claims.

As to the bad faith claim, the plaintiff’s“sole argument for its bad faith claim is based on the lapse in time between [the] request … for coverage in the [underlying] action on May 23, 2018 and [the] response denying coverage on October 22, 2018.” The court observed that while delay can be “’a relevant factor in determining whether bad faith has occurred … a long period of time between demand and settlement does not, on its own, necessarily constitute bad faith.’” “’Rather, courts have looked to the degree to which a defendant insurer knew that it had no basis to deny the claimant; if delay is attributable to the need to investigate further or even to simple negligence, no bad faith has occurred.’”

While these are significant points in measuring delay if a payment is due or defense owed, the court never had to reach the delay issue because the bad faith claim lacked merit once coverage was denied.  “There cannot be a bad faith claim against an insurer if that insurer had no duty to defend.” The court relied on 631 N. Broad St., LP v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co. for this principle.

Thus, there was no evidence of bad faith under the circumstances. Rather, the undisputed evidence established that the insurer “correctly refused to defend and indemnify” the putative additional insured.

Date of Decision: September 15, 2020

Eastern, LLC v. Travelers Casualty Insurance Co. of America, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-5283, 2020 WL 5534060 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 15, 2020) (Bartle, 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.

PLEADING A DISPUTE OVER VALUE AND SUBMITTING MEDICAL RECORDS TO SUPPORT ONE VALUE DOES NOT MAKE OUT A BAD FAITH CLAIM (Western District)

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This Western District UM bad faith decision aligns with recent Eastern and Middle District cases in finding that the insureds failed to plead a plausible bad faith claim.

Pleading Standards, General

Among other things, the court observed:

  1. Although a complaint does not need to allege detailed factual allegations to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint must provide more than labels and conclusions.

  2. A “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”

  3. “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and be “sufficient to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.”

  4. Facial plausibility exists “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”

  5. “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. [ ] Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with’ a defendant’s liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlement to relief.’”

Pleading Principles in Bad Faith Cases

The court also looked at prior case law in adducing pleading principles applied in insurance bad faith cases:

  1. In the bad faith context, district courts have required more than “conclusory” or “bare-bones” allegations that an insurance company acted in bad faith by listing a number of generalized accusations without sufficient factual support.

  2. Thus, the assessment of the sufficiency of a particular complaint often turns on the specificity of the pleadings and calls for recital of specific factual allegations from which bad faith may be inferred in order to defeat a motion to dismiss.

  3. Where a complaint’s § 8371 bad faith claim simply relies upon breach of contract allegations, coupled with a conclusory assertion that the failure to pay under an insurance policy was “unreasonable” or made in bad faith, courts have dismissed such claims, but typically have afforded litigants an opportunity to further amend and articulate their bad faith claims.

  4. A motion to dismiss will be granted where the “[p]laintiff’s generic invocation of statutory language is insufficient to satisfy his federal pleading burden.”

  5. There is no plausible claim stated in a statutory bad faith case where the complaint is devoid of “any facts that describe who, what, where, when, and how the alleged bad faith conduct occurred.”

Application of Law to Facts Pleaded Leads to Dismissal with Leave to Amend

The complaint alleges plaintiffs were injured by an uninsured motorist and sought UM coverage from the carrier. The policy had $100,000/$300,000 limits. Plaintiffs submitted a demand package, including relevant medical records.  The carrier offered a total of $23,000 to both plaintiffs. One plaintiff later submitted a lost wages claim of $18,000. The insurer increased the offer by another $3,000, but made clear it would not evaluate the lost wage claim.

Plaintiffs’ bad faith count relied on these factual allegations, which the court described as “breach of contract allegations,” and then added “a laundry list of generic allegations that may amount to bad faith….” This was not enough.

First, the court pointed out that plaintiffs failed to attach any exhibits to the complaint. Further, they did not plead “any facts to explain how or why the offer made by [the insurer] is nothing more than a legitimate dispute over the value of the claim.” The court made clear that disputes over value do “not necessarily give rise to bad faith; rather, a plaintiff must allege ‘factual content indicating that [the insurance company] lacked a reasonable basis for its tendered offer or that it knew or recklessly disregarded a lack of reasonable basis for the offer.”

The court dismissed the bad faith claim, with leave to amend.

Date of Decision: August 4, 2020

TAYLOR v. GEICO CHOICE INSURANCE COMPANY, No. 2:20-CV-00729-CRE, 2020 WL 4474926 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 4, 2020) (Reed Eddy, M.J.)

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