In a June 30, 2010 opinion (here), a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling that coverage under a directors and officers liability insurance policy for an underlying claim was precluded by the policy’s "insured vs. insured" exclusion, holding that the D&O policy at issue was "ambiguous" under Virginia law.
Prior to May 2004, Community Research Associates, an Illinois corporation, was controlled by three shareholders, referred to in the coverage action as the Legacy Shareholders. In May 2004, CRA was reorganized as a Delaware corporation as part of a stock purchase agreement by which Sterling Investment Partners became the majority shareholder, and the Legacy Shareholders became minority shareholders. The pre-transaction entity was referred to in the coverage litigation as CRA-Illinois and post-transaction entity was referred to as CRA-Delaware.
The May 2004 transaction contemplated several events occurring simultaneously at the time of the transaction closing. Among other things, the Legacy Shareholders were to assume positions as officers or directors of CRA-Delaware in order to sign the paperwork to complete the reorganization plan. In addition, as a condition of closing, the Legacy Shareholders were required to resign their positions as directors of CRA-Delaware in order to close the merger.
In October 2004, CRA-Delaware purchased D&O Insurance policy. In its application for insurance, CRA-Delaware stated, among other things:
On May 3, 2004, the company had a merger with an investment entity. A new Chairman and Chief Executive Officer was installed. The prior ownership remained in a minority capacity but were no longer participants on the Board or officers of the corporation. On August 2, 2004 a new Chief Financial Officer was hired.
In August 2005, CRA-Delaware approved a merger whereby all of CRA-Delaware’s stock was sold to a third-party, CRA Acquisitions Corp. The Legacy Shareholders filed a lawsuit against certain directors and officers of CRA-Delaware, alleging a breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the August 2005 merger. The breach of fiduciary duty action ultimately settled for $3 million.
The CRA-Delaware directors who were sued in the breach of fiduciary duty action filed a claim under the company’s D&O insurance policy for the losses incurred in connection with the claim. The D&O insurer denied coverage for the claim in reliance on the policy’s "insured vs. insured" exclusion, and coverage litigation ensued.
The district court in the coverage action granted the carrier’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the "insured vs. insured" exclusion was unambiguous and that because the Legacy Shareholders were all former directors and officers of CRA-Delaware, having assumed those roles briefly in order to effectuate the merger, the losses from their claim fell within the Policy’s exclusion.
The Second Circuit’s Opinion
The Second Circuit first found that when the district court had concluded that the Legacy Shareholders "briefly assumed" the role of directors of CRA-Delaware in order to effectuate the merger, the district court "assumed[ed] the answer without addressing the parties’ argument."
The coverage claimants argued that CRA-Delaware "did not exist as an entity until after the closing of the merger." The Second Circuit said that "at the very least, the question should have gone to a jury to determine whether CRA-Delaware existed prior to the merger or, if it did, whether it was the same entity that existed after the merger for purposes of policy coverage."
In reaching this conclusion the Second Circuit, referenced CRA-Delaware’s policy application, which was attached to and, by the Policy’s terms, incorporated into the policy. The Second Circuit found that the application, which the Court emphasized was part of the policy, described the May 2004 transaction in a way that raised these questions about when CRA-Delaware came into existence, and in particular about whether the Legacy Shareholders were ever officers or directors of CRA-Delaware as such.
Citing Virginia law, the Second Circuit held that "the Policy, when read in its entirety, can reasonably be ‘understood in more than one way’ and is thus ambiguous." Both of the parties’ interpretations of when CRA-Delaware came into existence "rely only on language of the Policy and are reasonable in light of the various provisions of the Policy."
Accordingly, the Second Circuit remanded the case to the district court "to undertake any additional fact finding to interpret the Policy provisions in light of the facts to be found."
At first impression, this case is a bit of head-scratcher, since the record does seem to suggest that the Legacy Shareholders were briefly directors of CRA-Delaware in order to effectuate the merger, which is exactly what the district court found.
On further reflection, however, the question may not be quite as straightforward as the first impression might suggest. There is a question about exactly when CRA-Delaware first came into existence, and whether the Legacy Shareholders were ever directors of CRA-Delaware when it came into existence. The application itself, which was incorporated in to the policy, seemingly suggests that the Legacy Shareholders were not officers or directors of CRA-Delaware as such.
Significantly, the Second Circuit did not affirmatively say that there was coverage here under the D&O policy, only that further findings of fact were required before it could be determined whether or not the insured vs. insured exclusion applied.
At some level, this coverage dispute may simply be a reflection of a very specific and arguably unique set of facts. However, the parties’ dispute is a reminder of the complexities that can sometimes arise in connection with the application of the "insured vs. insured" exclusion, which is frequently the source of contentious coverage issues.
That said, I don’t think the Second Circuit was saying the insured vs. insured clause in and of itself was ambiguous. Rather, the finding of ambiguity turned on the fact that the policy application was incorporated into the Policy – that is, by the Policy’s terms, the application was a part of the policy. The finding of ambiguity related to the interaction between the application as part of the policy and the insured vs. insured exclusion. In essence, the Second Circuit said that because of the ambiguous relation between these two parts of the policy, further fact finding is required.