Many professional liability insurance policies contain an exclusion that, though referred to as the antitrust exclusion, precludes coverage for a much broader array of claims than just claims alleging violation of the antitrust laws. A recent decision by the First Circuit, interpreting an Errors and Omissions insurance policy and applying Massachusetts law, in which the court found that the policy’s antitrust exclusion precluded coverage for a variety of different claims against the insured, underscores how broadly the preclusive effect of the antitrust exclusion can sweep. A copy of the First Circuit’s September 2, 2012 opinion can be found here.
The Saint Consulting Group is a consulting company that advises its clients in land use disputes. The firm had developed what the First Circuit called a “niche practice” in representing grocery store chains hoping to block or delay the opening of Wal-Mart stores. The firm was hired by a grocery store chain to try to block two Wal-Mart stores in the Chicago area. The developers who were trying to organize the Wal-Mart development filed suit against Saint, alleging in an amended complaint that the Saint’s activities violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The developers’ complaint also alleged violations of RICO and tortious interference with prospective business advantage.
The court dismissed the developers’ complaint, holding that the developers’ claims were precluded by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine (about which see more below). The developers’ have sought leave to file an amended complaint. The developer’s motion to amend apparently remains pending.
Saint submitted the lawsuit to its E&O carrier, which denied coverage for the claim in reliance on the E&O policy’s antitrust exclusion. The antitrust exclusion provides that the policy does not apply
to any claim based upon or arising out of any actual or alleged price fixing; restraint of trade, monopolization, or unfair trade practices, including actual or alleged violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Clayton Act, or similar provisions [of] any state, federal or local statutory law or common law anywhere in the world.
Saint filed a coverage lawsuit against the carrier in Massachusetts state court, alleging breach of contract as well as related claims. The carrier removed the case to federal district court, where the judge granted the carrier’s motion to dismiss Saint’s lawsuit, holding that Saint’s claims were expressly excluded by the antitrust exclusion. Saint Appealed.
The September 2 Decision
In a September 2, 2012 opinion written by Judge Michael Boudin for a unanimous three-judge panel, the First Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Saint’s lawsuit. The Court opened its analysis by stating that “the underpinning” of the developers’ complaint was that Saint and its client were “engaged in a campaign designed to frustrate feared competition from Wal-Mart.” The Court then reviewed the antitrust exclusion, which the court concluded clearly barred coverage for the developers’ claims based on the Sherman Act.
The “far more interesting question,” the Court noted, is whether the antitrust exclusion also reached the other counts in the developers’ complaint that relied on the same facts but “are not limited to and do not expressly identify their target as restraints of trade.” The Court concluded that it did, noting that the exclusion “extends by its terms to any claim ‘based upon or arising out of’ any actual or alleged … restraint of trade.” Under Massachusetts case authority, this “arising out of language” sweeps broadly enough to preclude coverage “even though the statute or tort is denominated in different terms.”
The court added that “it can hardly be disputed that the factual allegations” of the developers’ amended complaint “allege a conspiracy to forestall competition through misuse of legal proceedings and through deception.” Even the counts in the developers’ complaint that are not described as antitrust claims “depend centrally on the alleged existence of such a scheme.”
Saint tried to argue that the antitrust exclusion should not apply because the court in the underlying claim had concluded that Saint’s activities were protected from liability under all of the developers’ legal theories by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine. (The doctrine holds that liability under the antitrust laws cannot be imposed for activities aimed at legislatures, even where the activities’ motives and effects are to forestall competition). The First Circuit rejected this argument, noting that “the exclusion does not depend on whether a successful defense can be advanced: it excludes meritless claims quite as much as ones that may prove successful.”
Saint’s had another argument related to the Noerr-Pennington doctrine. It argued out that Noerr-Pennington activities comprise a large part of their business. Saint argued that if claims based on Noerr-Pennington activities were precluded from coverage that coverage under the policy would be illusory. The First Circuit paraphrased, with approval, the holding of the district court that the Saint had not alleged that the E&O carrier made explicit representations that its policy would cover without exclusions all of Saint’s core activities, adding that “that Saint may have expected more protections than it got suggests mainly that it may not have read carefully the policy it purchased.”
Many professional liability insurance policies, at least in their base form, contain antitrust exclusions. Indeed, many of the leading carriers’ private company D&O insurance policies have antitrust exclusions. These exclusions are often referred to, as I have in this blog post and as the First Circuit did in its opinion, in shorthand form, as antitrust exclusions. But as the First Circuit’s opinion shows, these exclusions can have a broadly preclusive effect far beyond claims explicitly denominated as antitrust claims.
In certain respects, it is of course no surprise that the exclusion sweeps beyond just claims denominated as antitrust claims, since the exclusion does expressly refer to other types of claims, including in particular claims for “restraint of trade.” It is noteworthy in that respect that the First Circuit’s broad interpretation of the “arising out of” that the exclusion’s preclusive effect is not merely limited to claims for or denominated as “restraint of trade” but to any related claims regardless of how denominated based on the allegations.
Many professional liability carriers have an antitrust exclusion in the base policy forms. Typically, E&O insurers will not agree to remove or modify this exclusion. However, in at least some circumstances, private company D&O insurers will agree to remove this exclusion, or at least to modify it to provide sublimited coverage or defense cost coverage.
As this case shows, the antitrust exclusion can have a broadly preclusive effect, not just to antitrust claims, and not even to restraint of trade claims, but other claims not denominated as such that “arise out of” those types of alleged violations. Given this broadly preclusive effect, private company D&O insurance policyholders and their advisers should have a strong bias in favor of policies that do not contain this exclusion, and where coverage is available without the exclusion, should have a strong preference for policies lacking the exclusion.
The significance of this fact – that there should be a strong preference for policies without antitrust exclusions – is often underappreciated because of the way the exclusion is referred to; that is, as an antitrust exclusion. Denominated that way, it sounds like it only refers to alleged violation of the antitrust laws, which many smaller businesses (rightly or wrongly) do not consider to be a significant risk for them. But on its face the exclusion applies to much more than just antitrust claims, and as the First Circuit’s decision in this case shows, the exclusion’s preclusive effect can sweep very broadly – so broadly in fact that the insured felt that if the exclusion really does sweep as broadly as the carrier here contended, that coverage under its policy was “illusory.”
Make no mistake, in certain types of claims, the antitrust exclusion can represent a significant diminution of coverage, and so the preference for policies without antitrust exclusions, particularly private company D&O policies should not be overlooked. The availability of this type of critical policy revision upon request underscores the importance for insurance buyers of having an experienced and informed insurance advisor involved in their insurance purchases, to ensure that all opportunities for coverage improvement are fully explored.
I will say that I find one statement by the appellate court particularly harsh; I refer to the Court’s statement that if Saint “expected more coverage than it got suggests mainly that it may not have read carefully the policy it purchased.” To me, this statement suggests the appellate believes that its coverage conclusion was facially obvious from the words in the exclusion.
Perhaps it is obvious to the appellate court that the exclusion would be broadly applied to a wide variety of claims regardless of how denominated. In my experience, most clients are outraged to find out how broadly some carriers will attempt to construe policy exclusions. That doesn’t mean that these clients don’t read their policies carefully, it means that they have broad expectations of coverage. Those expectations are embodied in certain principles of insurance policy construction, such as, for example, that policy exclusions will be interpreted narrowly and that the burden is on the carrier to show that an exclusion applies. I think it is entirely reasonable that an insurance buyer might expect that an insurance policy it purchased would provide coverage for what it considers to be its core business practices. The appellate court may have disagreed and reached a different conclusion, but to me that hardly justifies saying that the insured company’s expectation of coverage was simply a reflection of a failure to read the policy; it was, rather, a failure to appreciate that a court would read the policy differently. (All of that said, I recognize that the court’s statement really was a reflection of the court’s impatience with Saint’s lawyers’ arguments on appeal rather than any comment on Saint itself.)