Lee Farkas, the criminally convicted former Chairman and majority shareholder of the defunct Taylor Bean and Whitaker Mortgage Corporation, must repay the nearly $1 million in defense fees the company’s D&O insurer had advanced on his behalf, according to an April 11, 2013 Fourth Circuit opinion. The terse three-page appellate opinion adopts the ruling of the lower court, holding that Farkas’s criminal conviction triggered the D&O insurance policy’s “in fact” conduct exclusions which in turn triggered the insurer’s right to recoup the defense fees it had previously paid. The Fourth Circuit’s opinion can be found here, and the March 21, 2012 district court opinion, which the appellate court affirmed, can be found here.
In June 2010, Farkas was indicted on multiple counts of committing and conspiring to commit bank, wire and securities fraud. On April 19, 2011, a jury found Farkas guilty of all 16 counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud. As detailed here, Farkas was, among other things, alleged to have conspired with employees of the failed Colonial Bank to sell the bank approximately $400 million of mortgage assets that had no value. Taylor Bean was also alleged to have engaged in numerous other transactions with the bank that had no value. The bank’s collapse followed after the fraudulent scheme unraveled.
After he was indicted, Farkas sought to have his criminal defense fees paid by the company’s D&O insurer. With bankruptcy court approval, the D&O insurer advanced $928,977 toward Farkas’s defense. Farkas incurred significant additional defense expenses, and the carrier’s request for the bankruptcy court’s leave to pay those additional amounts was pending when the jury returned the guilty verdict. Following the verdict, the carrier informed Farkas that, as a result of the verdict and in reliance on the policy’s conduct exclusions, it would no longer fund Farkas’s defense costs, and it reserved its right to seek recoupment from Farkas of the amounts it had previously advanced.
Farkas filed an action in the Eastern District of Virginia seeking a judicial declaration that the jury verdict did not terminate the insurer’s defense obligation, and that in any event all of the fees he had incurred prior to the jury verdict must be paid. The D&O insurer filed a counterclaim seeking a judicial declaration that Farkas was not entitled to coverage under the policy and that Farkas was obligated to repay the amounts the insurer had previously advanced. The parties cross-moved for summary judgment. In her March 21, 2012 opinion, Eastern District of Virginia Judge Leonie Brinkema granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment. Farkas appealed.
In arguing that as a result of the jury verdict coverage for Farkas’s criminal defense fees was precluded under the policy, the insurer relied on the policy exclusion specifying that “The Insurer shall not be liable to make any payment for Loss in connection with a Claim against an insured …arising out of, based upon or attributable to the committing in fact of any criminal, fraudulent or dishonest act, or any willful violation of any statute, rule or law.”
In seeking to have Farkas repay the amounts that it had advanced, the insurer relied on the language in the policy specifying that “advanced payments by the Insurer shall be repaid to the Insurer by the Insureds or the Company, severally according to their respective interests, in the event and to the extent that the Insureds or the Company shall not be entitled under the terms and conditions of this policy to payment of such Loss.”
The Fourth Circuit’s Opinion and the Ruling Below
On April 11, 2013, in a terse three-page per curium opinion, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. The appellate court said that “having carefully reviewed the briefs, record and appellate law, we affirm for the reasons stated by the district court in its thorough opinion.”
In her March 2012 opinion, Judge Brinkema had granted summary judgment for the D&O insurer, finding that the jury verdict in the criminal case represented an “in fact” finding that triggered the conduct exclusion; rejected Farkas’s argument that he was entitled to the payment of the defense costs incurred by not yet paid before the verdict was returned; ruled that the insurer was entitled to recoup from Farkas the defense cost amounts it has advanced prior to the verdict; and rejected Farkas’s argument that the district court should stay its ruling while Farkas’s criminal appeal was pending. (Farkas’s criminal conviction was in any event subsequently affirmed.)
In ruling that the jury verdict triggered the policy’s conduct exclusion, Judge Brinkema stated that “there can be no reasonable dispute that the jury verdict here is an objectively verified and pertinent factual finding.” She added that none of the courts that have held that an “in fact” wording in a policy exclusion requires a final adjudication had defined a final adjudication as an appeal. She concluded that “there is simply no support in the case law for plaintiff’s position that a jury verdict does not trigger the ‘in fact’ requirement in the exclusion.”
With respect to Farkas’s contention that the insurer should at least pay the defense costs he had incurred but that the insurer had not yet paid when the verdict was returned, Judge Brinkema said that Farkas’s argument “ignores the consequence of a particular claim being excluded.” Farkas’s conduct “was never actually covered under the Policy, and he was therefore never entitled to the monies advanced to him.” Pursuant to the policy language, the insurer, she found, “has the right to seek recoupment of any costs that it advanced before it determined that an exclusion applied.”
The question of an insurer’s right to seek recoupment of advanced defense expenses is a recurring topic. As I have previously noted (here), although D&O insurers frequently assert their right to seek recoupment, it is still relatively rare for the insurers to actually do so. Among other reasons why the insurers rarely seek reimbursement is that it is relatively unusual for a D&O claim to proceed to the point that there has actually been a factual determination triggering an exclusion. Indeed, one of the many reasons why civil claims triggering D&O coverage frequently settle is that an insured defendant would risk a factual determination that might preclude policy coverage if the defendant were to press the case forward rather than settle.
This case’s criminal context obviously presents a different set of circumstances than does a civil case. A criminal defendant does not have the option of a pre-trial settlement that avoids a potentially coverage precluding outcome.
Just the same, the coverage outcome here is also due in part to an unusual feature of the policy at issue According to the court record, the D&O insurance policy at issue here was first issued to the Taylor Bean firm in 2008 and subsequently extended by endorsement. Even in 2008 it was standard for most D&O insurance policies to be issued with the “final adjudication” wording, rather than the “in fact” wording. With the final adjudication wording, the preclusive effect of the conduct exclusion does not apply under there has been a final judicial determination that the precluded conduct has occurred. The presence of the “in fact” exclusion language in the Taylor Bean policy is an anachronism that is unexpected and frankly a little bit surprising.
Because the policy had the “in fact” exclusionary language, Judge Brinkema had little trouble concluding that the jury verdict precluded coverage. Had the policy had the now-standard “final adjudication” language, the parties would then have had to argue about whether or not the criminal judgment against Farkas was “final” while his appeal was pending. I am well aware that there is extensive case law on the question whether or not a district court judgment if final and enforceable while an appeal is pending. But if the policy had contained the “final adjudication” language rather than the “in fact” language, Farkas might have had a better argument that the insurer was obligated to continue to advance his defense fees unless and until the conviction was affirmed.
It is worth noting that these circumstances demonstrate why the preferred exclusionary trigger is not just the “final adjudication” wording but rather the “final non-appealable adjudication” formulation. If the policy had the “non-appealable adjudication” wording, the insurer here would have been obligated not only to advance the amounts Farkas had incurred prior to the verdict but that the insurer had not yet paid, but also to continue to advance his defense expenses for his appeal. Farkas would have been able to continue to use his preferred counsel through his appeal (rather than, as Judge Brinkema noted, counsel appointed for him under the Criminal Justice Act). Farkas may well feel that the appeal might have turned out differently if he had been able to rely on his preferred counsel. I know for sure that if it were me, I would certainly want to be able to use my preferred counsel while appealing a criminal conviction.
The fact that Farkas had to rely on appointed counsel for his appeal suggests that he did not have resources of his own to rely on – which begs the question of why the carrier went to the trouble to obtain an order requiring Farkas to repay the advanced amounts. I mentioned at the outset of this discussion that it is relatively rare for carriers to seek recoupment of advanced amounts, and among other reasons why it is rare is that often there is no point for the carrier to seek recoupment because usually by the time a serious D&O claim has concluded, the defendant is usually broke – which seems to be the case here, which in turn begs the question why the carrier even bothered to pursue a recoupment order. It probably is worth noting in that regard that the D&O insurer did not initiate the coverage lawsuit here, Farkas did. The carrier only sought recoupment in its counterclaim, after Farkas had sued the insurer. Whether the carrier ultimately will recover anything under the recoupment order is a different question.
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