Large Insurer Overturns $12M Arbitration Award in New York Appellate Court

Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani partners Dennis O. Brown and Greil Roberts obtained a significant appeal win in a complex insurance coverage case for a major insurer on October 25, 2018, when a New York state appeals court vacated a nearly $12 Million arbitration award to Allied Capital Corporation.

The appeal arose out of an arbitration that began in 2010.  Allied Capital sought coverage from its insurer for a $10.1 million payment made to settle claims by the federal government arising out of the False Claims Act. The insurer denied coverage, and Allied filed for arbitration under its insurance policies, seeking to be compensated for the $10.1 million settlement payment plus defense costs.

In March 2016, in a 2-1 decision, the arbitration panel said the $10.1 million settlement was not a “Loss” under the policy; thus, Allied could not recover that amount. However, the arbitration panel decided that Allied was entitled to its defense costs, though the arbitration panel reserved the amount of defense costs to be awarded for a subsequent proceeding.

Not long thereafter, Allied sought reconsideration of the March 2016 award on the basis that the majority of the arbitration panel erred in finding that Allied did not suffer a “Loss” under the policy. The arbitration panel, in another 2-1 decision, determined that it was permitted to reconsider the March 2016 award and reversed itself, finding that the $10.1 million amount was a “Loss” under the policy.

The insurance company petitioned in New York state court for an order vacating the reconsidered award as having been rendered in excess of the powers and authority available to the arbitration panel. Specifically, the insurance company argued that the panel exceeded its authority based on the common law doctrine of functus officio. Under functus officio, an arbitrator cannot alter its final award except in limited circumstances.

The insurer argued that the March 2016 partial final award was final in the sense that it determined the extent of the insurer’s liability for Allied’s claim.  The insurance company argued that Allied’s counsel agreed to bifurcation of two issues: (1) the issue of coverage for Allied’s claim to be indemnified for the $10.1 million, and (2) whether Allied was entitled to recover defense costs and, if so, the amount of such recovery. Since the arbitration panel had resolved the first issue completely in the March 2016 award, the arbitration panel had no authority to subsequently alter that award. For its part, Allied argued that there had been no bifurcation, and since the issue of defense costs had not been fully resolved, there was no final award and the arbitration panel was permitted to reconsider its decision.

The state court denied the petition, and the insurance company appealed.  On October 25, 2018, in a 4-1 decision, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, First Department, agreed with the insurance company’s position that the panel exceeded its authority and improperly reconsidered the original partial final award:

There is nothing in the record that remotely suggests that the parties or the panel believed that the [March 2016 award] would be anything less than a final determination of such issues and under the functus officio doctrine, it would be improper and in excess of the panel’s authority for such final determination to be revisited.

The mere fact that the amount of defense costs had not been decided, the Court found, did not permit the panel’s reconsideration of the award: “In this case, the panel was functus officio with respect to the [partial final award] and thus, the panel’s reconsideration of the [partial final award] on substantive grounds was improper and exceeded its authority.”

The Court rejected Allied’s argument that, since the arbitration panel itself had found that it was not functus officio, it was entitled to reconsider the March 2016 award. The Court reasoned that, by Allied’s arguments, an arbitrator could avoid exceeding its authority when reconsidering a partial final award as long as the arbitrator stated that the parties did not bifurcate the proceedings or that the arbitrator did not intend for the award to be final as to a particular issue. However, “there is no support for such theory in the relevant case law,” the Court concluded.

New York’s Highest Court Expands the Phrase “Issued or Delivered” Under N.Y. Ins. Law § 3420(a)(2)

In a broad-reaching decision issued late last month, New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, clarified that the phrase “issued or delivered” in New York Insurance Law Section 3420 applies not only to policies issued by New York insurers or to New York insureds, but also to any policies insuring risks in the state.

Following a fatal automobile accident involving his wife, the plaintiff, Michael Carlson – individually, as the administrator of his wife’s estate, and as an assignee of the underlying individual tortfeasor who was a driver for an express shipping company – brought suit against the shipping company and it’s insurers pursuant to New York Insurance Law § 3420(a)(2) and (b) to collect on multiple insurance policies. Section 3420(a)(2) provides, in relevant part, that liability insurance “issued or delivered in this state” must contain certain provisions “that are equally or more favorable to the insured and to judgment creditors so far as such provisions relate to judgment creditors,” including the right of a direct action. Subsection (b) provides, subject to certain limitations that such actions may be brought by personal representatives of a judgment creditor and assignees of judgments obtained against an insured.

Because a plaintiff must establish that the policy sued upon was “issued or delivered” in New York in order to recover under the law, one insurer argued that the statute failed to apply where its policy was issued in New Jersey and delivered in Washington and then Florida. The court disagreed, stating that its prior decision in Preserver Insurance Company v. Ryba, 10 N.Y.3d 635 (2008) resolved the question in deciding that Section 3420 applies to policies that cover insureds and risks located in New York.

In Preserver the Court concluded that Section 3420(d) required insurers to provide written notice when disclaiming coverage under policies “issued for delivery” in New York. Preserver held that “issued for delivery” referred to the location of the insured risk, and not where the policy document itself was handed over or mailed to the insured. Applying this ruling to all subparts of Section 3420, the New York Court of Appeals thus held in its recent decision that a plaintiff can collect against an insurer if its insured has a “substantial business presence” in New York that “creates risks in New York,” and such an insurer must adhere to the requirements of New York Insurance Law § 3420.

Moreover, Carlson noted that the original legislative intent of Section 3420 was to protect tort victims in New York State. Further amendments to the statute in 2008 expanded the law’s reach. Those amendments also altered the “issued for delivery” language in Section 3420(d) to match the “issued or delivered” language elsewhere in the statute, but there is no indication that the legislature’s minor change to Section 3420(d) was intended to overturn the holding in Preserver. Carlson ruled that interpreting “issued or delivered in this state” narrowly, to apply only to policies issued by an insurer located in New York or by an insurer who mails a policy to a New York address, would undermine the legislative intent of the statute. The Court noted, however, that its interpretation of “issued or delivered” applies only to New York Insurance Law § 3420 and does not apply to other statutes.

In sum, Carlson held that the plaintiff was able to maintain his cause of action under New Yok Insurance Law § 3420 even though the insurer issued the policy in New Jersey and delivered it in Washington and Florida. The insured at issue in Carlson had a substantial business presence and created risks in New York, and therefore the insurer was subject to New York Insurance Law § 3420. The phrase “issued or delivered” in New York will continue to cover both insureds and risks located in the state.

Insurers in all jurisdictions should take note of this decision. As the dissent in Carlson observes, the majority’s ruling as to the meaning of “issued or delivered” in Section 3420(a) “enacts sweeping change across the Insurance Law, generating substantial implications, both known and unknown.” An insurer located outside of New York issuing a policy outside of New York may now be subject to New York law, whether or not a policy is issued in New York or to a New York-based insured.

A link to the decision (Carlson v. American Int’l Group, Inc., 2017 N.Y. LEXIS 3280, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 08163 (N.Y. Nov. 20, 2017)) is available on the New York State website: http://nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2017/2017_08163.htm.

California Appeals Court Rules that Insurer Not Entitled to Rescind Policy Based on Material Misrepresentation Due to Ambiguity of Application Questions

In Duarte v. Pacific Specialty Insurance Company, a California appeals court found that an insurer was not entitled to rescind an insurance policy due to material misrepresentation and/or concealment of material facts as a matter of law. The court held that the insurer could not prove that the insured had made misrepresentations when he applied for the policy because the application questions at issue were ambiguous.

Victor Duarte bought a tenant-occupied rental property in 2001. Sometime thereafter, the daughter of the tenant moved into the rental property with her father, and continued to reside there after her father’s death in 2010. In February 2012, Duarte served the daughter with an eviction notice. The daughter did not leave the rental property and Duarte did not take any further action to remove her.

In April 2012, Duarte electronically submitted an application for a landlord insurance policy with defendant Pacific. Pacific issued a policy to Duarte covering the rental property the same day.

In June 2012, the tenant/daughter filed a lawsuit against Duarte for habitability defects at the rental property which allegedly existed since 2009. The lawsuit alleged that Duarte had been notified of these defects, and sought various damages arising from the defects. In August 2012, Duarte tendered defense of the lawsuit to Pacific which denied coverage and any duty to defend. Duarte then sued Pacific for breach of contract and other claims on the grounds that Pacific not only failed to defend the tenant lawsuit but also wrongfully cancelled his policy. In responding to the lawsuit, Pacific asserted a right to rescind the policy due to material misrepresentations on the application.

In cross-motions for summary judgment/adjudication, Pacific argued that it was entitled to rescind the policy because Duarte made material misrepresentations when he answered “no” to two questions on the application: (1) whether he knew of any disputes concerning the property; and (2) whether there were any businesses conducted on the property. In support of its position, Pacific submitted records regarding a March 2012 complaint filed by the tenant/daughter against Duarte with a public agency. Pacific also submitted a transcript of Duarte’s deposition in which he testified about his understanding about the complaint filed against him by the tenant/daughter. The trial court granted Pacific’s motion and denied Duarte’s motion. Duarte appealed, and the appeals court reversed.

The court held that Pacific did not meet its initial burden of proving that Duarte made misrepresentations on the insurance application. The court noted that the first application question at issue – “Has damage remained unrepaired from previous claim and/or pending claims, and/or known or potential (a) defects, (b) claim disputes, (c) property disputes, and/or (d) lawsuit?” – had “garbled syntax” and was “utterly ambiguous.” The court found that the evidence submitted by Pacific showed that Duarte knew of claims and/or disputes concerning the property. However, the court rejected Pacific’s position that the question required the answer, “yes” if there was unrepaired damage, any open or pending claims, potential defect, property disputes, or potential lawsuits. Given the question’s ambiguity, the court found that Duarte properly answered, “no” because he reasonably interpreted the question to ask whether the property had unrepaired damage associated in some way with previous or pending claims, defects, claims disputes, property disputes or potential lawsuits.

With regard to the second application question – “Is there any type of business conducted on the premises?” – the court noted that Pacific submitted evidence that showed that Duarte knew the tenant and tenant/daughter occasionally sold motorcycle parts from the rental property. Nonetheless, the court held that Duarte properly answered, “no,” because he reasonably interpreted the question as referring to “regular and ongoing business activity,” of which there was none to his knowledge.

Gordon & Rees Partner Matthew S. Foy Appointed to Chair of DRI’s Insurance Law Committee

San Francisco partner Matthew S. Foy was recently appointed to serve a two-year term as Chair of the Defense Research Institute’s (DRI) Insurance Law Committee. The Insurance Law Committee is one of DRI’s largest and most active committees with more than 2,700 members and is the resource for professionals whose careers are devoted to or influenced by insurance.

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Matthew Foy is a partner in Gordon & Rees’s San Francisco office and serves as the National Practice Group Leader for the firm’s Property and Casualty Practice Group. Mr. Foy maintains a national practice and has represented the insurance industry for 20 years at the claims stage, in trial, and on appeal. Matt can be reached at (415) 875-3174 or [email protected]