Archive for the 'PA – Work Product' 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The court further relies on the unpublished Third Circuit decision, Gallatin Fuels, Inc. v. Westchester Fire Insurance Co., in reasoning that “’[a] finding that the insured did not ultimately have a duty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.)

INSURER’S RELIANCE ON ADVICE OF COUNSEL, AMONG MANY OTHER FACTORS FAVORING THE INSURER, DEFEATS BAD FAITH CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involves a head-spinning array of factual discrepancies between the insured’s claims to the carrier and the results of the insurer’s investigation. These range from whether the insured actually owned the property to whether the structure at issue collapsed from a sudden event or collapsed because of (uncovered) faulty construction. We leave you to the court’s lengthy and detailed narrative concerning these discrepancies, and the various coverage issues invoked by their presence. Of particular interest here is that in addition to involving an adjuster, SIU adjuster, supervisor and engineering expert, the insurer also puts its outside counsel’s coverage opinion on the record.  

The insured brought a bad faith claim, and the insurer moved for summary judgment after making a detailed record.  The insurer asserted various bases for why it was entitled to summary judgment. In granting summary judgment, the court stated that, at a minimum, there was a reasonable basis to deny coverage:

“The record indicates that [the insurer] conducted a thorough investigation of the claim and ultimately decided that coverage should be denied. Indeed, [a] property adjuster and an SIU adjuster inspected Plaintiff’s loss; the claim was reviewed by [a] supervisor; [the insurer] took the recorded statement of Plaintiff and reviewed relevant property documentation from the City of Philadelphia; [the insurer] obtained the services of a structural engineer; and [the insurer] then sent the structural engineer’s report, which opined on the cause of the loss, to independent legal counsel for an opinion on the coverage. Finally, relying upon independent legal counsel’s conclusion that coverage did not exist for Plaintiff’s loss, [the insurer] denied Plaintiff’s insurance claim. It cannot be said that [the insurer]’s investigation and decision-making process was ‘frivolous or unfounded,’ as required under Pennsylvania law to succeed on a bad faith claim.”

The court added, “the factual record is devoid of any ‘clear, direct, weighty and convincing’ evidence that would allow a factfinder to find ‘without hesitation’ that [the insurer] acted in bad faith in investigating and ultimately denying Plaintiff’s insurance claim.”

Moreover, even if the insured could make a case for unreasonableness, “the record is devoid of any evidence that [the insurer] either knew it had an unreasonable basis for denying coverage or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis in denying Plaintiff’s claim or in the manner in which it investigated Plaintiff’s claimed loss.” The record shows the contrary. The insurer not only engaged a structural engineer, but also independent legal counsel to analyze coverage. It then “relied on the independent findings of both the expert and legal counsel in its ultimate decision to deny” the claim.

Date of Decision: February 14, 2020

Nguyen v. Allstate Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 18-5019, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25789 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 14, 2020) (Kenney, J.)

 

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.)

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.

DISCOVERY IN BAD FAITH CASE: (1) RESERVES DISCOVERABLE; (2) MENTAL IMPRESSIONS NOT DISCOVERABLE; (3) TRADE SECRET OBJECTIONS CANNOT STAND ABSENT APPROPRIATE MOTION FOR PROTECTIVE ORDER (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this bad faith action, Eastern District Judge Slomsky addressed three disputed discovery issues: (1) reserves; (2) claim adjuster work product; and (3) trade secrets.

Reserves are Discoverable

District courts within the Third Circuit are split on whether reserves are discoverable in bad faith cases. In this action, Judge Slomsky stood with those judges who find reserves relevant and discoverable.

Work Product Privilege not Eviscerated Simply by Bringing a Bad Faith Action

On the other hand, he refused to require production of a claim adjuster’s mental impressions simply because it was a bad faith case. As the court states: “In essence, Plaintiff’s sole argument to compel production of [the adjuster’s] mental impressions is that [the mental impressions] are relevant merely because this case contains a bad faith claim. It is well-settled that this argument is insufficient to disregard the work-product privilege set forth in Rule 26.”

Trade Secret Objections Fail When (1) Insurer Does not Move for Protective Order, and (2) Does not Lay Out Nature of Trade Secrets in Opposing Motion to Compel

The insurer made redactions to document production based on trade secret objections. The court first observed that Pennsylvania Civil Rule 4012 governed this trade secrets issue, rather than the Federal Rules. The interpreted Pa.R.C.P. 4012 to require a party objecting on this basis to bring a motion for a protective order in the first instance, which the insurer did not do in this case. The court then observed that the insurer failed to address the insured’s arguments against the presence of trade secret protections, which could have been done without revealing any trade secrets. Still, after granting the motion to compel on this issue, the court gave leave for the insurer to file an “appropriate” motion for a protective order.

Date of Decision: July 16, 2019

Penn-Dion Corp. v. Great American Insurance Co. of N.Y., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 17-4634, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117635, 2019 WL 3202503 (E.D. Pa. July 16, 2019) (Slomsky, J.)

COURT ADDRESSES DISCOVERY RE: (1) RESERVES (2) OTHER CLAIMS/DISPUTES; (3) CLAIM LOGS; (4) CLAIM STATUS REPORTS; (5) POLICY AND PROCEDURE MANUALS; (6) EMPLOYEE INCENTIVES; (7) ANTICIPATION OF LITIGATION/WORK PRODUCT; AND (8) OVERBROAD DISCOVERY LANGUAGE (Middle District)

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This case addresses a number of discovery issues in this first party benefit denial breach of contract and bad faith case.

RESERVES (BAD FAITH ON COVERAGE VS. REFUSAL TO SETTLE/VALUE DISPUTES)

Magistrate Judge Carlson observed courts in the Third Circuit are split on whether reserves are discoverable in bad faith cases. He first states that when the bad faith case is about a failure to settle or dispute over a claim’s value, the prevailing view is that reserves are discoverable. “However, when the bad faith claim is based on a denial of coverage and ‘does not involve the value of the claim or [the plaintiff’s] estimation of liability… the reserve information requested is neither relevant nor reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”

The alleged bad faith in this case is based on denying coverage through a biased and unfair review process, and not a dispute over value. Thus, reserves are irrelevant to the bad faith claim, and production is not required.

OTHER MATTERS NOT RELEVANT OR DISCOVERABLE

The alleged basis of the bad faith claim was that the insurer intentionally used a biased peer review organization and doctor to terminate plaintiff’s medical benefits unfairly. Plaintiff served interrogatories concerning virtually all matters in which the same PRO and doctor were selected by the insurer. Magistrate Judge Carlson did not permit this discovery.

The court first looked at prior case law denying discovery on the issue of the size of an adjuster’s case load, finding it both irrelevant and of marginal utility compared to the burden imposed on the insurer to make production. In the present case, Magistrate Judge Carlson found that “the number of times that this PRO and/or doctor decided in favor of the insurer, whether on initial review or on reconsideration, will not necessarily speak to any such bias.” If, e.g., a PRO found for the insurer 98 out of a 100 times, “those 98 claims may very well have been legitimately decided on their merits, which could not be known without an extensive post hoc evaluation of the merits of each claim.”

The court was not going to carry out that kind of evaluation, and observed that “courts in this circuit have held that ‘discovery of other insureds’ claims in bad faith cases is generally improper, as such information is irrelevant.”

ADDITIONAL RULINGS ON CLAIMS LOGS, CLAIMS STATUS REPORTS, ANTICIPATION OF LITIGATION, OVERBROAD DISCOVERY LANGUAGE, EMPLOYEE INCENTIVES, AND POLICY/PROCEDURE MANUALS

Magistrate Judge Carlson made the following additional points and rulings:

  1. Magistrate Judges have broad discretion in resolving discovery disputes.

  2. Plaintiff alleged there was a biased peer review process used to deny medical benefits. The court found the portions of the insurer’s policy manuals on the peer review process, and employee procedures or policies for handling inquiries about insurance policies, must be produced.

  3. A request for “all communications of any nature whatsoever” concerning the complaint are vague and overbroad, as are requests for communications regarding “any matters raised by Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ initial disclosures”.

  4. The work product doctrine kicked in when plaintiff’s counsel wrote to the insurer expressing dissatisfaction with the outcome of the PRO process. Actual suit or even the threat of suit are not required to trigger the insurer’s anticipation of litigation. Thus, claim notes created after the date of that letter received work product protection, but claim notes before that date had to be produced.

  5. Claim log entries indicating an employee simply looked at the file or generically uploaded a document are not protected work product.

  6. The insurer was required to respond to an interrogatory asking for “the nature and amount of any employee incentive to close out insureds’ claims”.

Date of Decision: February 6, 2019

Barnard v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Corp., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 3:18-CV-01218, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18660 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 6, 2019) (Carlson, M.J.)

SEPTEMBER 2018 BAD FAITH CASES: RESERVES DISCOVERABLE IN BAD FAITH ACTION; WORK PRODUCT PROTECTION DOES NOT ARISE WITH MERE SUGGESTION OF LITIGATION (Philadelphia Federal)

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This discovery dispute arose in a UIM bad faith case over the insurer’s seeking to reduce benefits after taking the position it had overpaid for lost income.

The insurer refused to produce claims file materials based on the work product doctrine. These included (1) employee mental impressions and opinions about the claim and (2) reserve information. The court ordered the parties to meet and to try and reach agreement on the date the insurer reasonably anticipated litigation. If any document remained in dispute, these would be considered for in camera review. The insurer ultimately submitted redacted and unredacted claim filed documents to the court, and an annotated privilege log identifying the disputed documents.

Among other things, the court observed that “discovery disputes involving an insurance company’s claims file often present problems for the parties because the ordinary course of an insurer’s business involves evaluating its policyholder’s claims.” It stated that “The temporal trigger for work product protection in this context is the point in its investigation an insurance company’s activity shifts from mere claims evaluation to an anticipation of litigation.” The burden is on the insurer to “demonstrate that it subjectively anticipated litigation, and that the anticipation was objectively reasonable.”

The court rejected the notion that protected was triggered when the insured’s lawyer told the carrier he wanted to discuss the case to avoid litigation. “[A] lawyer’s mere suggestion of a lawsuit is not enough to make an insurer reasonably anticipate litigation when the insurer’s evaluation of the claim is ongoing.” In this case, the ongoing claim payments indicated the evaluation process was continuing even after this statement.

The court next found there was no per se standard under the controlling federal rules barring discovery of reserves under the work product doctrine. It further noted that prior Pennsylvania state law, relied on by the carrier, left open the issue of whether reserves were discoverable in bad faith cases. The court added that the insurer did not provide factual support that the reserves were prepared in anticipation of litigation.

[See this blog post discussing discovery and reserves.]

Date of Decision: August 22, 2018

Neidich v. Progressive Advanced Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 17-5375, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 142445 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2018) (Padova, J.)

 

 

OCTOBER 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: COURT ADDRESSES A WIDE RANGE OF BAD FAITH DISCOVERY ISSUES AS TO PRIVILEGE, WORK PRODUCT, AND RESERVES (Western District)

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This is a discovery opinion addressing a wide range of issues including the attorney client privilege, work product doctrine and discovery of reserves. A number of rulings were held in abeyance pending in camera review, which are not addressed below

1.        The attorney client privilege is not limited to claims handler communications with outside counsel.

“This Court is not aware of any authority that limits the attorney-client privilege to communications with outside counsel, as opposed to in-house counsel, and Plaintiff has cited none. Therefore, this Court rejects Plaintiffs’ claim that the attorney-client privilege could not have attached before Attorney McDonnell was retained as outside counsel to handle Plaintiffs’ claim.”

2.         The privilege is not abrogated simply because a document is relevant to a bad faith claim.

“Plaintiffs next assert that the documents listed in the privilege log titled ‘Communications with counsel regarding the value and merits of claim’ are not privileged because they “go to the heart of this bad faith action[.]” (ECF No. 20 at 8.) However, as Defendant notes, the Third Circuit has unequivocally held that ‘[r]elevance is not the standard for determining whether or not evidence should be protected from disclosure as privileged, and that remains the case even if one might conclude the facts to be disclosed are vital, highly probative, directly relevant or even go to the heart of an issue.’ Rhone-Poulenc Rorer Inc. v. Home Indem. Co., 32 F.3d 851, 864 (3d Cir. 1994). Moreover, ‘[a] party does not lose the privilege to protect attorney client communications from disclosure in discovery when his or her state of mind is put in issue in the action.’ Id. Thus, while Plaintiffs are correct that these communications ‘go to the heart’ of Plaintiffs’ bad faith claim, this fact does not change the analysis of whether these communications are protected by the attorney-client privilege.

3.     Documents prepared by claims adjusters and sent to attorneys are privileged.

“Plaintiffs also claim that ‘communications made by the claims representatives are not immune from discovery.’ This argument is easily dismissed. ‘[T]he attorney-client privilege operates in a two-way fashion to protect confidential client-to-attorney or attorney-to-client communications made for the purpose of obtaining or providing professional legal advice.’ The fact that the documents were prepared by the claims adjusters, rather than the attorney to whom the documents were sent, is immaterial to the analysis of whether those documents are protected under the attorney-client privilege.”

4.         Reserves discoverable in bad faith action.

The court found reserve information discoverable in bad faith cases. It wrote the following in explaining its position:

“There is competing treatment of whether reserve information is discoverable in a bad faith lawsuit.” Shaffer v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., No. 1:13-CV-01837, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30436, 2014 WL 931101, at *2 (M.D. Pa. 2014). “Some courts have noted a ‘tenuous link between reserves and actual liability given that numerous considerations factor into complying with this statutory directive.'” Sharp, 2014 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 282, 2014 WL 8863084 at *8, quoting Fidelity & Deposit Co., 168 F.R.D. at 525 (citing Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, Inc. v. Home Indemnity Co., 139 F.R.D. 609, 613 (E.D. Pa. 1991)). However, as a court of common pleas recently stated:

Several trial courts, including this court, have reasoned that insurance reserves are discoverable in bad faith litigation against insurers, where liability for the underlying claim has already been established, since such information may be relevant to the issue of whether the insurer acted in bad faith in failing to settle or pay the original claim. See Consugar v. Nationwide Insurance Co. of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61756, 2011 WL 2360208, at * 5 (M.D. Pa. 2011) (‘Since plaintiff here claims that defendant acted [*19]  in bad faith, a comparison between the reserve value of the claim and defendant’s actions in processing plaintiff’s claim could shed light on defendant’s potential liability.’); North River Ins. Co. [v. Greater New York Mut. Ins. Co.], 872 F. Supp. [1411] at 1412 [(E.D. Pa. 1995)] (finding reserve information “relevant to the question of whether or not [the insurer] acted in bad faith during the pre-trial settlement negotiations.”); McAndrew v. Donegal Mutual Ins. Co., 56 Pa. D. & C. 4th 1, 18 (Lacka. Co. 2002); Fretz v. Mutual Benefit Ins. Co., 37 Pa. D. & C. 4th 173, 180 (Alleg. Co. 1998). Sharp, 2014 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 282, 2014 WL 8863084 at *8.”

5.     Reserves concerning insured’s claim are discoverable, but reserves concerning other claims are not, and court will not indulge fishing expedition on setting reserves for other claims.

“Defendant’s boilerplate responses also contend that Plaintiffs’ requests are overly broad. … This Court disagrees with Defendant’s contention in regards to Interrogatory No. 5, in which Plaintiffs’ seek information regarding the reserve history for [the insured’s] own claim. Because the gist of Plaintiffs’ complaint is that Defendant acted in bad faith in handling [the insured’s] underinsured motorists claim, Plaintiffs’ request for the reserve history for [her] claim is not overly broad.”

“However, this Court agrees with Defendant that RPD No. 4 is overly broad. While Plaintiffs have demonstrated the relevancy of the reserve amounts for [the insured’s] own claim, Plaintiffs have not shown — nor even argued in their Motion to Compel — that reserve information for other insureds is relevant to Plaintiffs’ claim. Therefore, Defendant will only be required to produce any relevant documentation of the reserve history for [the insured’s] claim.”

“RPD No. 4 asks for “all documents relating to or involving the process used from 2011 to the present in setting or otherwise establishing or determining reserves for underinsured motorists claims.” (ECF No. 20-2 at 4.) However, neither Plaintiffs’ Motion to Compel nor Defendant’s Brief in Opposition contain any argument concerning whether or not discovery of Defendant’s reserve process for other insureds is appropriate. In other words, neither party addresses the issue of whether RPD No. 4 seeks documents that are outside of the context of Plaintiffs’ specific claim. To the extent that Plaintiffs’ ask for discovery of reserve information for other claims, this Court declines the invitation to allow Plaintiffs to embark on a fishing expedition.”

6.       Work product doctrine not applicable to reserve information in this case.

“The only other objection that Defendant has put forth is its boilerplate response that the information requested by RPD No. 4 and Interrogatory No. 5 ‘is protected from discovery by the work-product doctrine.’ … However, Defendant’s threadbare and conclusory invocations of the work product doctrine fail to establish that Defendant is entitled to the privilege it asserts. Moreover, Defendant does not even argue in its Brief in Opposition that this information is protected by the work-product doctrine. Further, according to the reserve history for [the insured’s] claim, the reserve values were set by non-attorneys. … In fact, Defendant has not asserted that the reserve amounts were set or altered at the direction of, or with the cooperation of, counsel. Therefore, Defendant has failed to establish that the information Plaintiffs seek is protected by the work-product doctrine.”

Date of Decision: October 2, 2017

Parisi v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-179, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162131 (W.D. Pa. Oct. 2, 2017) (Gibson, J.)

 

OCTOBER 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: BIFURCATION AND STAY OF BAD FAITH CLAIM DENIED ON ALL FOUR CRITERIA, INCLUDING SIMILARITY OF ISSUES, COMMON EVIDENCE, UNDUE EXPENSE TO THE INSURED, AND ABSENCE OF PREJUDICE (Middle District of Pennsylvania)

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An underinsured motorist injured the insureds. The tortfeasor’s insurer ultimately tendered $15,000 to the insureds. The insureds’ own UIM policy contained maximum benefits of $100,000, or $200,000 with stacking. The insureds demanded full benefits under the policy.

After investigation, the insurer offered $10,000 to settle the UIM claim. The insureds filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas. The insurer removed the action to federal district court and filed a motion to dismiss. The Court denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss. The insurer then filed a motion to bifurcate the bad faith claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42.

In considering a party’s bifurcation motion, courts are careful to consider whether a stay would damage a party. Specifically, courts consider four factors in deciding a Rule 42 motion: “(1) whether the issues are significantly different from each other; (2) whether they require separate witnesses and documents; (3) whether the nonmoving party would be prejudiced by bifurcation; and (4) whether the moving party would be prejudiced if bifurcation is not granted.” The movant bears the burden to show that bifurcation is appropriate.

  1. First, the Court found that the claims are not “so profoundly different” as to justify bifurcation.

  2. The Court ruled that “both claims would utilize similar documents, such as the [insurer’s] claim file, relevant medical evidence . . ., and the [insurer’s] settlement attempts.” In addressing the insurer’s concerns on privileged materials pursuant to the attorney work-product doctrine, the Court ruled that the insurer failed to identify specific documents that enjoy such privilege. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the insurer is free to file such motions going forward in order to assert its privilege at any time.

  3. The Court held that the insured would suffer economically if the bad faith claim was stayed, because the insured would have to pay its attorney to do twice the work. “Bifurcation would require two discovery periods, double the dispositive motions, and double pre-trial motions.”

  4. Lastly, the Court held that the insurer would not be prejudiced were its motion to bifurcate be denied, because the insurer could simply defeat the bad faith claim by showing a reasonable basis for its settlement offer and investigatory conduct.

In conclusion, none of the four factors weighed in favor of bifurcation and the Court denied the motion to sever and stay the bad faith claim.

Date of Decision: September 18, 2017

Newhouse v. GEICO Cas. Co., No. 4:17-CV-00477, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150793 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 18, 2017) (Brann, J.)

FEBRUARY 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: INSURER BAD FAITH AT ISSUE IN EVALUATING SETTLEMENT PAYMENT; ADVICE OF COUNSEL NOT AT ISSUE UNLESS ASSERTED (Middle District)

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An insurer sued its appointed defense counsel in connection with counsel’s defense of a UIM claim. The insurer claimed that counsel failed to assure that the UIM arbitration panel was instructed on the limits of insurance ($2 million), and that the carrier was subjected to the risk of having to pay an excess arbitration award of nearly $4 million above policy limits.

The UIM plaintiff settled the claim with the carrier, which included receiving the full amount of the arbitration award above policy limits. Defense counsel asserted a defense of contributory negligence based on the insurer’s alleged bad faith handling of the UIM claim; and further argued that the settlement was not entirely for the $ 6 million arbitration award (to which sum it was identical), but included monetary consideration for the UIM plaintiff’s threatened bad faith claim as well.

The court granted partial summary judgment to strike the affirmative defense of contributory negligence, but only to the extent that this defense was based on the insurer’s conduct that was not causally related to the arbitration award. The court accepted counsel’s argument that part of the settlement payment was to get a release for the bad faith claim, and thus was part of the damages at issue.

Therefore, it would permit some discovery on the argument that the insurer acted in bad faith in handling the underlying UIM claim, and paid some portion of the settlement to address that issue.

Thus, the Court found that “the fact and extent of [the insurer’s] bad faith handling of the [UIM] claim and concomitant exposure to bad faith liability are directly relevant to the question of the amount of damages it sustained due to [defense counsel’s] conduct. If [the insurer] is successful on its malpractice claim, it will have to prove actual losses that it suffered as a result of Defendants’ negligence. Because [the insurer] did not pay the arbitration award directly, it cannot claim that the excess award is the damages it now seeks. However, if [the insurer] attempts to prove that the settlement payment constitutes actual losses proximately caused by Defendants’ negligence, it must also prove with reasonable certainty what portion of the settlement payment in excess of its policy limits was paid to satisfy the arbitration award. Discovery on [the insurer’s] exposure to bad faith liability is therefore relevant to the scope of damages [the insurer] alleges to have sustained. And because [the insurer’s] bad faith conduct affects the amount of damages sought, the Court will not preclude Defendants from pursuing discovery on … bad faith.”

Next, the court addressed discovery issues.

The carrier had argued that certain documents in its own files were subject to the attorney-client privilege or work product doctrine. In addition, defense counsel sought discovery of the files of the attorney that replaced him in the UIM case.

As to the second category, the court could not rule because the privilege log was inadequate. The privilege log “entries do not contain specific sender and recipient information, and the Attorney Work Product entries do not state the specific party who created the work product. Additionally, the descriptions are too vague to permit the Court to find that each element of the privilege claimed is satisfied. [The insurer] therefore must supplement its privilege log with this information in order for the Court to determine whether the documents are in fact privileged.”

As to the insurer’s own documents, the court found that the work product doctrine applied to claim notes containing the mental impressions and strategies of the insurer’s attorneys and representatives. These notes were authored by an attorney or claim handler of the insurer.

The insurer also sought to withhold documents that were sent by the defendant defense counsel to the insurer regarding post-arbitration strategy. The court found the attorney-client privilege waived once the insurer sued its attorney, and that the attorney himself held the work product privilege, not the insurer.

The court found the carrier did not waive the privilege concerning communications with in-house counsel, and with the outside counsel subsequently retained. The carrier had disclosed a limited privileged document, but the court found this did not constitute waiver of the privilege as to every communication with counsel.

The court further found that the insurer was not asserting an advice of counsel defense, which could waive the privilege. The court observed that “an attorney’s ‘[a]dvice is not in issue merely because it is relevant, and does not necessarily become in issue merely because the attorney’s advice might affect the client’s state of mind in a relevant manner.’”

“Rather, ‘[t]he advice of counsel is placed in issue where the client asserts a claim or defense, and attempts to prove that claim or defense by disclosing or describing an attorney client communication.’” Those circumstances were not present.

Date of Decision: January 20, 2017

N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co. v. Brady, No. 15-2236, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8268 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 20, 2017) (Caputo, J.)