One of the recurring D&O insurance issues is the question of policy coverage for additional acquisition consideration paid to an acquired companies’ shareholders – so-called "bump up" claims. In an interesting and colorfully written September 28, 2009 opinion (here) that insurers undoubtedly will cite profusely in future disputes of this kind, District of Massachusetts Judge Nancy Gertner held that Genzyme Corporation’s D&O insurance policy did not cover amounts Genzyme paid to settle the claims of individuals who asserted they had received inadequate consideration in an exchange for their tracking shares of an internal Genzyme division.
From 1993 to 2003, Genzyme’s capital structure included "tracking stock" to track the performance of separate business units within the company. In May 2003, Genzyme’s board decided to eliminate the tracking stocks, and the company announced that it would exchange the business units’ tracking stock for a certain number of the company’s General Division’s shares.
The ensuing exchange "proved to be unpopular among many Biosurgery Division shareholders," who subsequently initiated a securities class action lawsuit against Genzyme and certain of its directors and officers. The Biosurgery Division shareholders alleged that the defendants had schemed to depress the Division’s tracking stock so that Genzyme could fold the Biosurgery Division into the General Division at an exchange rate favorable to General Division shareholders. In August 2007, Genzyme agreed to settle the Biosurgery Division shareholders’ claim for $64 million. More detailed background regarding the lawsuit can be found here.
Genzyme sought to recover part of this settlement amount from its D&O insurer. The insurer denied coverage on two grounds: (1) that the settlement did not represent insurable "loss" under the policy; and (2) that coverage was precluded by the policy’s "bump up" exclusion. Genzyme initiated coverage litigation. The D&O insurer moved to dismiss.
The September 28, 2009 Opinion
Judge Gertner opened her opinion with an assessment of the "plethora of cases" on which the D&O insurer sought to rely to argue that "an insured does not incur insurable loss when she is merely forced to disgorge money or other property to which she is not entitled." Judge Gertner noted that "this legal principle is undeniably correct and would almost certainly be adapted by a Massachusetts court."
Judge Gertner then made the first of the several vivid commentaries that characterize her opinion, when she noted that
A thief should not be able to claim the return of stolen property as an insurable loss. Similarly, an individual who breaches her contract and then is forced to pay damages should not be able to seek indemnification under an insurance policy. If I pay only $100for an item for which I promised to pay $200, and I am later ordered by a court to pay the additional $100, I should not be able to claim the additional $100 as an insurable loss. Had I paid the full $200 due up front, then clearly no part of the $200 would constitute loss covered by insurance. The dilatory nature of my obligatory payment should not transform it into an insurable event.
Genzyme sought to distinguish the referenced case law by arguing that it had received no benefit to which it was not entitled or that could be disgorged. Judge Gertner agreed, noting that the company had merely reorganized its capital and issued additional shares. But while Genzyme itself did not benefit, its shareholders "surely did" benefit from the reduced exchange ratio, and the class action was "meant to redress the imbalance."
As a result of these circumstances, Judge Gertner found, this case "does not fit comfortably within the existing case law holding that the mere return of an ill-gotten gain was uninsurable." She expressly rejected the insurer’s "attempt to force this case into the existing case law."
Having determined that the existing case law was inapposite, she proceeded to address defendants’ motion based her own analysis of the question presented, which she stated to be as follow: "When a corporate pays a settlement to resolve a claim that it benefitted one group of shareholders at the expense of another group of shareholders, is this settlement payment an insurable loss?" The answer to this question, she found, "must undoubtedly be ‘no.’"
To explain this conclusion, Judge Gertner resorted to a "somewhat strained – but one hopes enlightening – hypothetical." In her hypothetical, a father and his two sons, Daniel and Eli, are in a restaurant and have ordered a singled milkshake divided into two cups. The father redistributes the milkshake between the cups in a way that leaves Daniel with two-thirds of the milkshake and Eli with one third. The father, she noted, would be expected equalize the distribution, not "to turn to the restaurant owner and demand that he provide more milkshake to make up the difference."
Drawing upon this hypothetical, she found that the lawsuit settlement had merely "recalibrated the division" in the share exchange by giving the Biosurgery Division shareholders additional cash in place of the additional shares to which they claimed they were entitled. Genzyme should not, she said, be able to demand indemnification from the insurer for what is in effect a share redistribution.
If Genzyme’s interpretation of the policy were correct, she found, "a corporation merely need issue several classes of shares, cancel one class in an arguably unfair way, and then demand that the insurer pick up the tab." She rejected this possibility noting that the policy "should not be read in a way that produces absurd results."
Judge Gertner then turned to the insurer’s alternative argument that there was no coverage under the policy for the settlement because of the policy’s "inadequate consideration" or "bump up" exclusion, which provides that the carrier is not liable for "the actual or proposed payment by any Insured Organization of allegedly inadequate consideration in connection with its purchase of securities issued by any Insured Organization." Genzyme argued that the exclusion did not apply because the share exchange did not involve a "purchase" of securities, but rather the mere exchange of one class of securities for another.
After reviewing dictionary definitions, Judge Gertner concluded that the share exchange was "unambiguously a ‘purchase’ within the natural and ordinary meaning of the word." She also found that Genzyme sought coverage under a policy provision applicable only to a "securities claim," defined inter alia as the "purchase or sale of securities." Genzyme, she noted, was contending that the share exchange was a "purchase" for purposes of relying upon the policy’s definition of securities claim, yet did not explain why the same word should have a different meaning in a different policy provision.
Judge Gertner rejected Genzyme’s further argument that even if Genzyme itself no claim in its own right under the policy, there would still be coverage for the settlement under the policy’s separate insuring clause providing reimbursement for Genzyme’s indemnification of its directors and officers.
Judge Gertner found that "it makes little sense to allow a corporation to sidestep coverage limitations in its insurance policy through the simple expedient of claiming that a settlement payment was made to indemnify its directors and officers." She noted that a contrary holding could "encourage fraud" and "chicanery," as otherwise a corporation could use calculated indemnification resolutions to try to create coverage for otherwise noncovered claims.
Judge Gertner’s opinion is not only highly readable and even entertaining, it is also potentially significant, for a number of reasons.
First, Judge Gertner made it clear that she was not relying on prior case law in reaching her decision. As a result, her opinion potentially represents a new line of analysis in connection with the perennial questions about coverage under the D&O policy for "additional consideration" claims. In particular, her analysis does not depend on whether or not the payment for which coverage was sought was "restitutionary." Rather her analysis turned on whether the insurer could fairly be asked to pay for what was effectively a redistribution or "recalibration."
At a minimum, this line of analysis could give insurers disputing coverage for "bump up" settlements an additional ground on which to base their position, arguably without even having to get into the question whether the payment in dispute was "restitutionary." Insurers instead (or perhaps alternatively) will strain to rely on Judge Gertner’s milkshake hypothetical.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, Judge Gertner did not base her decision on the bump up exclusion alone, although she did grant the motion in the alternative based on the exclusion. The significance of the fact that she separately and independently granted the motion to dismiss on the ground that the settlement is not an insurable "loss" is that even today many policies do not contain a bump up exclusion. Indeed, over the years, many of the "additional consideration" coverage disputes that have arisen have involved policies lacking such exclusions. Judge Gertner’s reasoning could be particularly influential in future "additional consideration" disputes involving policies without bump up exclusions.
Third, even though her opinion did not rely on the prior case law holding that restitutionary payments are uninsurable, her detailed elaboration of the intellectual basis for the principles behind the case law will undoubtedly add weight (and color) to legal arguments relying on these cases.
Fourth, the decision is also significant for its interpretation and application of the bump up exclusion. As I noted in a prior post (here), these exclusions are still relatively new, vary widely, and generally have not been subject to extensive judicial scrutiny. There is still relatively little case law interpreting bump up exclusions. Judge Gertner’s enforcement of the exclusion here, particularly her conclusion that the share exchange was a "purchase" within the exclusion’s meaning, helps illuminate how these exclusions operate and how they will apply.
Finally, Judge Gertner’s opinion may be particularly noteworthy because of her willingness to dispense with prior case law formulas and to base her decision instead on a careful consideration of the underlying transaction and facts. However, I expect that not everyone is going to be equally impressed with her milkshake hypothetical. Even those inclined to cheer Judge Gertner’s opinion here should reflect on the possibility that other judges, perhaps lacking Judge Gertner’s intellectual rigor, might unburden themselves of their own hypotheticals that may or may not have anything to do with the parties’ reasonable expectations of how the policy should operate.
In any event, insurers undoubtedly will find much to like in Judge Gertner’s opinion, which is not only highly literate but highly quotable. Her colorful phrases will undoubtedly be featured heavily in insurers’ future legal briefs both on bump up claims and with respect to questions regarding restitutionary payments. The only things that may undercut insurers’ attempts to rely on the Genzyme decision are the somewhat unusual facts involved in the case. Those seeking coverage will certainly try to argue that Judge Gertner’s "redistribution" or "recalibration" analysis is restricted to the specific and unusal circumstances of the Genzyme case.
Special thanks to the several loyal readers who sent me copies of the Genzyme opinion.
All That, and She’s A Fellow Blogger, Too: Readers curious about Judge Gertner’s willingness to express herself so freely in a judicial opinion may be interested to know that in addition to being a federal judge, she is also a blogger. According to a Boston Globe profile (here), she began blogging because she determined with respect to blogs (correctly in my view), that "if this is where people are getting information, this is where to be." She also noted, in an observation to which every blogger and would-be blogger will relate, that the hardest part about blogging may be finding time to blog.
She apparently has had found little blogging time lately, because there have been relatively few recent entries by any of the contributing authors on the site for which she has been blogging, the Convictions blog on the Slate website (here). (Believe me, Judge Gernter, I know all about the way a pesky day job can interfere with important blogging activities.)