Claims arising out of corporate bankruptcy represent a significant stress test for directors’ and officers’ liability insurance coverage. Among other frequently recurring issues are questions whether post-bankruptcy claims against the bankrupt company’s directors and officers run afoul of the Insured vs. Insured (I v. I) exclusion found in most D&O insurance policies.
In a July 10, 2009 opinion (here) that highlights many of these perennial bankruptcy-related D&O insurance coverage issues, the Ninth Circuit held that a D&O policy’s Insured vs. Insured exclusion bars coverage for claims that were brought against former directors and officers of a bankrupt company by the post-bankruptcy debtor in possession and later assigned to a creditors’ trust. The decision may have important implications for the prospective wording of coverage “carve backs” from the I v. I exclusion.
Visitalk, which had filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, and while acting as “debtor and debtor in possession,” sued four of its recently discharged directors and officers for breaches of their fiduciary duties. Visitalk’s D&O insurers refused coverage for the claim, in reliance on the I v. I exclusion.
Visitalk’s primary D&O insurance policy’s I v. I exclusion provided as follows:
The Insurer shall not be liable to make any payment for Loss in connection with any Claim made against the Directors and Officers . . .:
(D) brought or maintained by or on behalf of an Insured in any capacity or by any
security holder of the company except:
(1) a Claim, including, but not limited to, a security holder class or derivative action that is instigated and continued totally independent of, and totally without the solicitation of, or assistance of, or active participation of, or intervention of an Insured;
(2) an Employment Practice Claim3 by a former Director or a present or former Officer;
(3) a claim for contribution or indemnity if the Claim directly results from another Claim that is otherwise covered under this Policy; or
(4) a claim by any employee(s) of the Company described in IV.(D)(2) of the Policy.
Visitalk filed a Chapter 11 reorganization plan that assigned its claims against the directors and officers to a trust created by the creditors. The trustee for the creditors trust (Biltmore) and the four director and officer defendants agreed to settle Visitalk’s claims for about $175 million. The four directors and officers assigned to the creditors’ trust their rights against the D&O insurers. (The record does not disclose whether or not the settlement with Biltmore also included a provision typical of these kinds of arrangements, which is a covenant by the settling claimant not to execute any judgment entered pursuant to the settlement on the assets of the settling defendants.)
Biltmore, as trustee for the creditors’ trust, then sued the D&O insurers in reliance on the individuals’ assignment to Biltmore of their rights under the D&O policies. The District Court dismissed Biltmore’s complaint on narrow grounds relating to the relation between Visitalk’s primary D&O insurer and the primary insurer’s successor in interest. The Ninth Circuit did not reach the successor in interest issue but nevertheless affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the case on the grounds that the I v. I exclusion applies.
The Ninth Circuit’s Opinion
The Ninth Circuit’s July 10, 2009 opinion (here) written by Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld opens with a review of the reasons for the inclusion of an insured vs. insured exclusion in D&O insurance policies, noting that “because risks such as collusion and moral hazard are much greater for claims by one insured against another insured … than for claims by strangers, liability policies typically exclude them from coverage.”
The Court then noted that because none of the exceptions to the policy’s I v. I exclusion apply, the only question was whether the underlying suit was “brought or maintained on behalf of an Insured in any capacity.”
The Court found that the underlying claim had been “instigated and continued” by Visitalk as Chapter 11 “debtor and debtor in possession.” Though coverage was now being sought by the trustee of the creditor’s trust, it was doing so merely as an assignee. The court noted that “an assignee of a claim against an insurance company can have no stronger claim than the assignor who assigned the claim.”
The question then is whether Visitalk’s status as debtor in possession at the time it initiated the claim triggered the I v I exclusion.
Biltmore argued that Visitalk, the chapter 11 debtor in possession that brought the underlying suit, is not the same entity as Visitalk, the insured corporation. However, the Ninth Circuit concluded after a review of authorities that “for purposes of the insured versus insured exclusion, the prefiling company and the company as debtor in possession in chapter 11 are the same entity.”
The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that “it is certainly true that interests differ once a debtor goes into bankruptcy.” Among other things, due to the bankruptcy “ownership of the cause of action fell into the bankruptcy estate” and Visitalk as debtor in possession of the bankrupt estate was “empowered to act as fiduciary for its creditors and shareholders.”
Biltmore argued that because Visitalk as debtor in possession was acting as representative for the estate’s creditors in bringing the suit, the I v. I exclusion does not apply. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that while suit might be brought for the benefit of creditors, it was not brought “on behalf of” the creditors. The Ninth Circuit said that the suit is “for the benefit of the creditors, but on behalf of the pre-bankruptcy corporation.”
The Court said that the question was not whether the creditors might benefit from any recovery. The court said that the insurance “cannot be turned into an available pot for the corporation’s creditors by enforcing the insurance obligations while disregarding the parties’ agreement to limit those obligations to exclude insured versus insured claims.”
The Ninth Circuit concluded its analysis of the I v. I exclusion issues by noting that a contrary holding would
create a perverse incentive for the principals of a failing business to bet the dwindling treasury on a lawsuit against themselves and a coverage action against their insurers, bailing the company out with the money from the D & O policy if they win and giving themselves covenants not to execute if they lose. That is among the kinds of moral hazard that the insured versus insured exclusion is intended to avoid.
As I have previously noted (here), the insured vs. insured exclusion is heavily litigated and continues to be at the heart of many D&O coverage disputes, particularly in the bankruptcy context, as this case demonstrates. In response to these many continuing disputes, the exclusion itself has continued to evolve, and the I v. I exclusion in the typical D&O policy in today’s marketplace is quite a bit different than the exclusion at issue in the Visitalk case.
Among other things, the I v. I exclusion in most D&O policies today contain additional exceptions to the exclusion, or coverage “carve banks” as they are usually called. Among other provisions now more or less standard is a carve back to the I v. I exclusion specifically relating to the bankruptcy context. A typical carve back of this type would specify that the I v. I exclusion would not apply “in any bankruptcy proceeding by or against an Organization” to “any claim brought by an examiner, trustee, receiver, liquidator or rehabilitator (or any assignee thereof) of such Organization.”
It would have been interesting to see how the Ninth Circuit would have addressed the issues in the Visitalk case if the policy as issue had contained these now fairly standard provisions. However, even if Visitalk’s policy had contained a carve back of this kind, it likely would not have altered the outcome, because the underlying action in the Visitalk claim had not been brought by any of the creditors’ representatives referenced in the carve back, but rather had been brought by Visitalk as debtor in possession.
The solution to this coverage problem would seem to be simply to include the debtor-in-possession in the list of bankruptcy-related claimants for whose claims coverage is carved back as an exception to the exclusion. Indeed, parts of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in the Visitalk case suggest that this would be appropriate, particularly the Court’s comments about how a debtor’s status changes upon becoming a debtor in possession, and how an action by a debtor in possession as representative of the estate is for the benefit of creditors.
However, throughout the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is a pervasive concern with the possibility of collusive litigation. The Court clearly was concerned that if there were coverage, a debtor in possession action might represent a collusive attempt by a debtor company to use the cover of a bankruptcy filing and the ruse of a supposed claim as a way to access insurance proceeds to pay off the company’s debts.
Without minimizing the collusive possibilities to which the Ninth Circuit refers, I believe there is also a legitimate concern that without policy recognition in some way for debtor in possession claims, individuals could be left without insurance for claims of a kind for which D&O policies are intended to provide coverage.A debtor in possession claim is not inevitably collusive, and in that regard I note that the individuals named as defendants in the underlying suit in the Visitalk claim were former directors and officers, targeted post-bankruptcy on behalf of the bankrupt estate.
There are, in fact, D&O insurance policies available in the current marketplace that attempt to address the problem of debtor in possession claims. For example, one policy’s list of the bankruptcy-related claimants for whose claims coverage is carved back include “a Claim by the Entity as Debtor-in-Possession after such Examiner, Trustee, Receiver has been appointed.” The prerequisite for the availability of coverage under this carve back for the appointment of an examiner or trustee does represent some check against the collusive possibilities about which the Ninth Circuit was concerned.
Whether or not this particular formulation is sufficient to preclude the possibility of collusive claims, it strikes me as a step in the right direction toward protecting against the possibility that individuals could otherwise be left without coverage for claims of a kind for which these policies were intended to provide protection.
To be sure, the individual defendants in the Visitalk claim were not left to defend themselves without coverage; they entered into the settlement and assignment of rights with the trustee to the creditors’ trust. The parties’ entry into this settlement arrangement clearly troubled the Ninth Circuit, and the Court’s concerns about these kinds of settlement and assignment of rights deals clearly affected the court’s analysis. However, it should be noted that there is nothing about the debtor in possession claim context that uniquely encourages this kind of settlement, and litigants in many other contexts enter similar arrangements. Indeed, if the individuals were clearly covered and thus able to defend themselves, they would have far less incentive to enter these kinds of arrangements.
While I don’t mean to trivialize concerns about the possibility of collusive claims, for me the most important message from the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the Visitalk case is not necessarily the threat of collusive claims but rather then need to address in the policy the possibility of debtor in possession claims against individual directors and officers. The clear implication seems to be that the now fairly typical bankruptcy-related coverage carve back to the I v I exclusion should be modified to preserve coverage for debtor in possession claims.
One final observation about this particular coverage problem is that whether or not the primary D&O insurer will agree to provide a coverage carve back in the I v I exclusion for debtor in possession claims, an insured company may be able to purchase an excess Side A policy providing “difference in condition” protection and that either does not contain an I v. I exclusion or has one that is very narrowly circumscribed.
Because of the issues raised in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, particularly the court’s concerns about the possibility of collusive claims, I would like to hear readers’ views about these issues, and I encourage everyone to post their thoughts for others using this blog’s “Comment” feature.
Very special thanks to Mike Early of the Chicago Underwriting Group for providing me with a copy of the Visitalk opinion. I hasten to add that the views expressed in the blog post are exclusively my own.
2009 Failed Banks – The Slideshow: This past Friday night, the Bank of Wyoming of Thermopolis, Wyoming, became the fifty-third bank to fail this year (refer here for more details). Regular readers know that the FDIC maintains a detailed list of failed banks (here). But who needs a list when you can see a slideshow, including pictures of all of the banks that failed this year? Check out Clusterstock’s failed bank slideshow, which is complete prior to the closure of the Bank of Wyoming, and can be accessed here.
Mid-Year Review: Securities Litigation and Enforcement: On July 9, 2009, I participated in a Securities Docket webinar entitled “Mid-Year Review: Securities Litigation and Enforcement” that included as panelists Lyle Roberts of the 10b5-Daily blog, Francine McKenna of the Re: The Auditors blog, Tom Gorman of the SEC Actions blog, as well as Bruce Carton of Securities Docket. Carton has posted a brief summary of the topics discussed in the webinar in a July 10, 2009 Compliance Week column entitled “Bloggers Offer 2009 Mid-Year Review” (here).
The webinar itself is available to be viewed online and can be accessed below: