One of the standard provisions of the typical D & O insurance policy is a clause requiring the insurer’s prior consent to settlement. This clause can be the source of tension between carriers and policyholders, and policyholders and their counsel sometimes view the clause as little more than an impediment. However, a March 13, 2008 opinion (here), the New York Court of Appeals makes it clear that policyholders who disregard the settlement consent requirements do so at peril to coverage under the D & O policy.

The insurance coverage dispute in the case arose out of the securities analyst/conflict of interest investigation that unfolded earlier in this decade. Among the investment banks targeted in investigation was Bear Stearns. On December 20, 2002, Bear Stearns entered a settlement in principle with the regulators in which it agreed to pay a total of $80 million, with $25 million allocated as a penalty, $25 million in disgorgements, $25 million for independent research, and $5 million for investor education.

On April 21, 2003, Bear Stearns executed a consent agreement in which it acceded to the entry of final judgment in the SEC’s pending enforcement proceeding. Bear Stearns also agreed to payment of the $80 million and explicitly agreed not to seek insurance coverage for the $25 million penalty.

Three days after executing the settlement agreement, Bear Stearns sent letters to its D & O carriers requesting the carriers’ consent to the settlement. Bear Stearns sought coverage for $45 million of the settlement (which represented the settlement amount, excluding the penalty, in excess of the policy’s $10 million self-insured retention). The insurers disclaimed coverage and initiated a declaratory judgment action.

In October 2003, the federal court presiding over the regulatory enforcement action entered judgment on the terms to which Bearn Stearns previously had agreed.

The insurers disputed coverage on a number of grounds, but because the Court of Appeals opinion addresses only the consent to settlement issue, that is the sole issue I discuss in this post.

Bear Stearns’ primary D & O insurance policy had a provision specifying that:

The Insured agrees not to settle any Claim, incur any Defense Costs or otherwise assume any contractual obligation or admit any liability with respect to any Claim in excessof a settlement authority threshold of $5,000,000 without the Insurer’s consent, which shall not be unreasonably withheld . . . The insurer shall not be liable for any settlement, Defense Costs, assumed obligation or admission to which it has not consented.

The New York Supreme Court (trial court) found that triable issues of fact existed whether Bear Stearns breached the consent to settlement clause. The Appellate Division modified the lower court’s opinion in certain other respects, but affirmed the Supreme Court on the consent to settlement issue. The Appellate Division then certified the case to the New York Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals, in an opinion written by Justice Victoria A. Graffeo, held that “Bear Stearns breached [the consent] provision when it executed the April 2003 consent agreement before notifying the insurers or obtaining their approval.” The Court of Appeals said that it was “unpersuaded by the contention that a triable issue of fact exists because the federal court did not approve the settlement until it entered a final judgment in October 2003.”

Judge Graffeo specifically noted that

As a sophisticated business entity, Bear Stearns expressly agreed that the insurers would "not be liable" for any settlement in excess of $5 million entered into without their consent. Aware of this contingency in the policies, Bear Stearns nevertheless elected to finalize all outstanding settlement issues and executed a consent agreement before informing its carriers of the terms of the settlement. Bear Stearns therefore may not recover the settlement proceeds from the insurers.

The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Court and granted the carrier’s motion for summary judgment. Because of its ruling on the consent provision, the Court of Appeals did not reach the other issues on which the carriers disclaimed coverage.

There may well have been additional grounds that could also have precluded coverage here, but it is still an arresting development – and a cautionary tale – that the Court of Appeals precluded coverage altogether based solely on the failure to obtain advance consent to settlement. Significantly, the Court of Appeals enforced the consent provision without superimposing any requirement for the insurer to show that it was prejudiced in any way by the failure to obtain consent. The Court of Appeals focused strictly on the policy’s language.

Companies and their counsel sometimes regard the consent settlement requirement as if the language were merely precatory, or perhaps even as optional if they believe settlement circumstances suggest the need to press ahead without bringing the carrier into the loop. It is not an unprecedented development for a carrier to learn of a settlement only after the fact. But the Bear Stearns opinion provides unambiguous notice to companies and counsel that they disregard the policy’s advance consent requirement at peril of precluding coverage.

The larger lesson here is that the carrier should be kept in the loop. Indeed, the better practice, the one likeliest to produce the best claim outcomes, is for companies and their counsel to treat the carrier as a collaborative partner in the claims process. While there are unfortunate situations where the carrier does not respond appropriately, even in those situations the policyholder will be better off (for example, before a court if coverage litigation ensures) if the policyholder has consistently maintained professional and timely communications with the carrier.

And whatever else may be said, it is clear, at least in New York, that the D & O policy provision requiring the carrier’s advance consent to settlement means what it says, and policyholders should take care to comply with its requirements.

Special thanks to a loyal reader for providing a copy of the New York Court of Appeals opinion.