Attorney Client Privilege Waived In Bad Faith Case Despite No Advice of Counsel Defense, Federal Magistrate Rules

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HATTIESBURG, Aug. 15 — A federal magistrate judge in Mississippi has ruled Nationwide Insurance must produce documents and that the insurer’s former counsel must produce billing records in a bad faith case related to the handling of an uninsured/underinsured motorist’s claim, finding the insurer waived protections under the attorney-client privilege and the attorney work product doctrine, even though it did not formally assert the advice of counsel defense.

In Craig Flanagan, et al. v Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company,  U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Parker  found that while Nationwide did not formally assert the advice of counsel defense opening the door to prior counsel’s work product and communications, it did pick and choose certain potentially privileged documents to produce in  aid of  its defense in the case, thereby waiving attorney – client and work product protections.

Nationwide’s insured, Craig Flanagan was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident on  May 31, 2014 while driving a vehicle owned by owned by Flanagan Construction Co. and insured by Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Co.  The Nationwide Policy provided UM/UIM Coverage, out of which Nationwide paid  $1 million statutory limits for noneconomic damages and $1.5 million for the medical expenses.  After Nationwide failed to pay the remaining $4.15 million in remaining UM/UIM limits, Flanagan, his wife,  and Flanagan Construction sued Nationwide in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. In the suit, the  Plaintiffs sought the remaining UM/UIM limits ,  and also alleged fad faith, for which they sought punitive damages.

During the course of the case the Plaintiff’s filed a motion to compel production of a number of Nationwide claims documents, including investigative documents, and the files of outside counsel, Bill McDonough of Copeland Cook Taylor and Bush, relating to the claims. The Plaintiffs also sought the billing records of McDonough and the Copeland firm,  which was retained initially by Nationwide  to investigate the claim, but was later retained to represent Nationwide in the UM/UIM claim as well.

In granting the motion to compel, Judge Parker wrote:

“Plaintiffs argue that Nationwide is relying upon the advice and actions of McDonough as a defense despite Nationwide’s insistence that it is not asserting an ‘advice of counsel’ defense.  According to Plaintiffs, ‘Nationwide has produced a number of communications between Nationwide and Copeland Cook in support of its defense to the bad faith allegations, but has chosen to cherry-pick which communications to produce in discovery and which communications to withhold on a claim of privilege.’ . . .  Plaintiffs also point to the fact Nationwide identified McDonough as a witness in its initial disclosures and point to Nationwide’s interrogatory response.”

Nationwide opposed the motion to compel,  and argued that did not plead advice of counsel.  It also argued that the documents it did produce showing communication between Nationwide and McDonough contained only “objective facts,” and neither legal advice nor attorney work product.

Judge Parker disagreed, however, writing:

“review of the documents produced by Nationwide . . . reveals that Nationwide did not simply disclose ‘objective facts’ as it alleges, but also disclosed McDonough’s opinions regarding Flanagan’s evidence supporting his loss of income claim, Flanagan’s ability to prove cognitive impairment, the need to hire experts, the benefits and risks involved in scheduling a medical examination, and the timeliness of Nationwide’s investigation and payment to Flanagan…

An insured cannot force an insurer to waive the protections of the attorney-client privilege merely by bringing a bad faith claim.  Nationwide’s prior production, however, has put at issue Nationwide’s confidential communications with McDonough.  Nationwide has voluntarily injected its counsel’s advice into this case by purposely disclosing, inter alia, its counsel’s opinion that Nationwide has not ‘unnecessarily delayed payment of [Flanagan’s] claim.  . . .

To allow Nationwide to use the attorney-client privilege to withhold additional information related to counsel’s advice ‘would be manifestly unfair’ to Plaintiffs.”

Judge Parker also  found that Nationwide’s disclosure of certain documents containing McDonough’s opinions and impressions constituted waiver of the work product doctrine as well, and ordered the documents to be produced.

Editor’s Note: The price of asserting the Advice of Counsel Defense in a bad faith case is always waiver of attorney – client privilege and the attorney work product doctrine.  The calculus of the costs and benefits of asserting the defense must therefore always  be done thoroughly and carefully.   Insurers and their lawyers must be mindful that there are many ways to assert Advice of Counsel, and few, if any, to try to put it back in to the bottle once it has been let out.  Formal assertion of the defense is but one way to waive the protections of   attorney – client privilege and the attorney work product doctrine.  The defense can be asserted by conduct as well, leading to inadvertent waivers of privilege and work product protection. 

Craig Flanagan, et al. v Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company, No. 2:17-cv-33-KS-MTP, S.D. Miss., Eastern Div., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123204

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Third Circuit: Insurers May Have Easier Time Keeping Coverage Litigation In Federal Court

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PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 22 – In a recent ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit may well have made it easier for insurers to litigate coverage in federal court regardless of whether there is an existing underlying proceeding pending in state court.

In Kelly v. Maxum Specialty Insurance Group,  the Third Circuit Court of appeals reversed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky, who  had opted to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over the removal of a declaratory judgment action filed by a dram shop  liability personal injury plaintiff against the tavern defendant’s insurance agent  and the agent’s liability insurer.  The Plaintiff sought a ruling that the insurer, Maxum, had an obligation to defend and indemnify the insurance agent Carman, in an underlying state suit against Carman relating to the agency’s failure to advise the tavern’s insurer of notice of the original dram shop suit, which led to a default judgment against the tavern.

Judge Slomsky remanded the insurance coverage suit, filed under the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, on the grounds that the underlying state proceeding against the insurance agent, Carman, was a prior, parallel proceedinging.  Judge Slomsky ruled that the insurance coverage issues could be resolved in the state court action filed by the dram shop plaintiff against the agent, Carman, because Maxum could conceivably be added as a party to that suit.

Last week, however,  a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit disagreed with Judge Slomsky’s reasoning and ruled instead that that a federal action brought under the Declaratory Judgment Act is not parallel to a state case “merely because they have the potential to dispose of the same claims.”

Circuit Judge Michael Chagares wrote on behalf of the panel that “[Defining] ‘parallel state proceeding’ so broadly balloons a court’s discretion to decline a [Declaratory Judgment Act] action beyond the measured bounds we set forth in our prior decisions.”  The appeals panel further ruled that while the presence of related state court proceedings was a factor to consider, the district judge failed to consider a number of other factors, including Maxum’s argument that it was not even a party to the underlying civil errors and omissions case  against its insured, Carman.

 

 

Judge Chagares wrote:

“We hold that the mere potential or possibility that two proceedings will resolve related claims between the same parties is not sufficient to make those proceedings parallel; rather, there must be a substantial similarity in issues and parties between contemporaneously pending proceedings.”

Using that standard, the Third Circuit found that the state negligence action against Carman  and the federal declaratory judgment suit which included Maxum were  clearly not parallel, as they involved different parties and distinct claims.

The Third Circuit remanded the federal declaratory judgment  case to Judge Slomsky with the instruction that he proceed to confirm complete diversity of citizenship of the parties to the federal declaratory judgment action.

Kelly v. Maxum Specialty Ins. Grp._ 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 15824.

Editor’s Note: The opinion issued by the Third Circuit in Kelly should be given close attention by insurers wishing to maintain declaratory judgment litigation in generally more favorable federal forums.  Those insurers often have to defend their federal coverage suits from remand motions in which state court plaintiffs make enticing arguments to federal trial judges presenting them with an opportunity to clear an active case off of their dockets through exercise of the abstention doctrine.  The rule set forth in Kelly may allow insurers to effectively respond to such remand claims, by pointing out to the federal court that an underlying personal injury proceeding which does not involve a defendant’s insurer and a federal declaratory judgment suit on coverage which does, are hardly “parallel” proceedings.  CJH

Alternative Fee Program Data Shows As Program Matures, Clients Realize Savings On Outside Legal Expense

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Here is an actual set of alternative fee numbers I’ve just happily provided to update one of the insurance clients I represent, demonstrating that an alternative fee program is saving them money on outside legal expense.  Real money.

Listed below are data for seven insurance related  cases I am handling under a monthly flat fee program (with a cap on the number of months the flat fee can be charged, so as to encourage efficiency).  First a look at the numbers, and then a few quick observations.   Only the case names below are changed to protect identities.  The numbers are 100% actual  and show actual flat fees paid by the client versus what they would have paid under an hourly rate agreement.  Green numbers in the Net Diff. column represent savings to the client.

Case            Hourly Fees      Flat Fees       Net Diff.

Smith        $17,218.50       $25,350.00       $8,131.50

Jones         $30,433.00        $13,650.00     -$16,783.00

Ajax           $2,212.50         $2,775.00         $562.50

King          $4,781.00          $1,950.00       -$2,831.00

Queen       $2,157.50         $895.00            -$1,262.50

Western   $4,074.50         $2,925.00         -$1,149.50

Atlantic   $351.00            $2,775.00        $2,424.00

Total         $61,228.00     $50,320.00     -$10,908.00

Client Savings:            -17.8%

Before the observations, a caveat:  This data, at any given time, is a snapshot in the life of an assignment, and/or group of assignments.  The data changes, but as the assignments mature in terms of their life cycle, a clear picture emerges:

  • Overall the client savings in this alternative fee program approaches 20%.  As the data set increases, the savings  ratio will stay relatively stable, but the real dollars saved in outside legal expense will grow, and grow, and grow.  A company with a million dollars a year  in outside legal expense based on hourly engagements would spend only $821,846.21, a savings of nearly $200,000.00.
  • The insurance clients are “winning” more fee agreements than they are not “winning.”  This is a sign that the alternative fee program is rightly priced so that it is both 1.) an real financial benefit for the client, and 2.) not a financial hardship for the outside law firm.
  • The program retains extreme flexibility, as each assignment is quoted independently (although the quotes generally do cluster closely for similar type cases) and either side retains the right to seek adjustment as the matter proceeds.  Clients also reserve the right to request the traditional billable hour arrangement for any case which they feel does not suit the alternative fee program.
  • There are and there will be outliers in any alternative fee program.  But as you can see from the data, the outliers are rare — in the two cases with  more than a $5,000.00 difference between what the client paid and what the client would have paid, one benefitted the client, and one benefitted the law firm, but the client benefitted twice as much as the law firm when the two outliers are aggregated.  Win-win-win.
  • The program provides simultaneous double benefit to the participating client:  1.) the client gets the benefit of outside counsel with local knowledge and expertise;  and 2.) the client secures this quality at less than hourly rate pricing.

I cannot think of any CEO’s, CFO’s or any other XXO’s who would not like their General Counsel to approach them with an immediate simple way to give their outside legal expense a 20% haircut, while at the same time retaining the right to assign any matter under a flat fee or traditional billable hour arrangement.

I also cannot think of a General Counsel for whom I have ever worked who would not want to take the alternative fee arrangement mechanism I’ve  outlined above for a spin, if it meant retaining the desired law firm at reduced cost.  There is literally nothing to lose except 20% off your outside legal expense budget.

CJH

 

Pa. Supreme Court Holds No Fiduciary Duty Created By Purchase of Insurance From Ameriprise Financial

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PITTSBURGH, June 20 – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that Ameriprise Financial owed no fiduciary duties to two insureds who consulted with an Ameriprise financial adviser following a cold call  and purchased life insurance and annuity products from the insurer.

In Yenchi v. Ameriprise Financial, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Yenchi sued Ameriprise, American Express Financial Services Corporation, American Express Financial Advisors Corporation, IDS Life Insurance Company, and an agent, Holland, after having their purchases independently reviewed.  The Yenchis’ complaint, filed in November 2003, asserted claims of negligence/willful disregard, fraudulent misrepresentation, violation of the Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“UTPCPL”),  bad faith, negligent supervision, and  breach of fiduciary duty.

The trial court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion which argued that no fiduciary duty existed.  The Superior Court reversed, however, and the Defendants appealed to the Pa. Supreme Court which granted allocator on the issue of whether a fiduciary duty existed between  the Yenchis and the Defendants.

In finding no fiduciary relationship existed, Justice Christine Donahue wrote that not all insurance transactions impose fiduciary obligations upon the insurer:

The record here establishes that the Yenchis made the decision to purchase Appellants’ advice and financial products. Reliance on another’s specialized skill or knowledge in making the purchase, without more, does not create a fiduciary relationship. We acknowledge that the Yenchis may have become comfortable with the Appellants’ expertise before deciding to purchase the 1996 whole life insurance policy, which is to be expected when making a financial decision. It is part of the development of any business relationship — consumer or otherwise. It   does not, however, establish a fiduciary relationship. There is no evidence to establish that the Yenchis were overpowered, dominated or unduly influenced in their judgment by Holland.

The Yenchis never ceded any decision-making authority to [the advising agent]Holland. Over the course of the relationship, they followed some of his recommendations and rejected others. Prior to the proposal for the whole life policy at issue, Appellants proposed a different whole life product that the Yenchis did not purchase. As to advice accepted, the Yenchis purchased the 1996 whole life insurance policy and the 1997 deferred variable annuity. They began saving money in an investment certificate and opened an IRA account. On the other hand, they rejected other recommendations, including, in particular, Holland’s advice in 1998 to increase their life insurance to the $300,000 level, deciding for themselves that the 1996 whole life policy was a sufficient amount of life insurance for their needs. The evidence does not establish that the Yenchis were subject to any overmastering influence by Holland. They maintained and exercised decision-making control over their financial matters. No confidential relationship was ever created.

Yenchi v. Ameriprise Fin., Inc., No. 8 WAP 2016, 2017 Pa. LEXIS 1405, at *23-25 (June 20, 2017)