Stanford Financial Group’s D&O insurer may advance the individual directors’ and officers’ defense expenses without violating the court’s receivership order, according to an October 9, 2009 ruling by Northern District of Texas Judge David Godbey. A copy of Judge Godbey’s ruling can be found here.
As detailed in a prior post (here), the insurer had been prepared to begin advancing defense expenses of Stanford Group’s former CFO, Laura Pendergest-Holt, subject to a reservation of its rights to later deny coverage under the policy if circumstances should warrant. However, before the insurer began advancing these amounts, the Stanford group receiver had notified the receiver that if the insurer advanced Pendergest-Holt’s defense expenses, the receiver would seek to have the insurer held in contempt of court for violating the court’s receivership and asset freeze orders.
The receiver asserted that the proceeds of the D&O insurance policies are "receivership assets" within the meaning of Judge Godbey’s prior receivership and asset freeze orders. The receiver also argued that his right to the proceeds "supersedes" the rights of insureds under the policy.
Pendergest-Holt filed a motion in the SEC enforcement proceeding (here) seeking a judicial clarification that the receivership order does not apply to the D&O policy proceeds, and alternatively seeking authorization for the disbursement of the proceeds for payment of her defense expense.
The insurer itself had also inquired of the court whether it could advance the defense expenses without "running afoul" of the receivership order. However, the insurer, which has separately filed an action seeking a judicial declaration that the Stanford receivership is not entitled to payment of claims as a result of the operation of policy exclusions, did not request the court in the SEC enforcement proceeding to decide whether or to what extent any insured is entitled to coverage—it sought only to determine whether the receivership order barred it from advancing the individuals’ defense fees.
In his October 9 ruling, Judge Godbey concluded that he did not need to determine whether or not the proceeds were receivership assets, because he concluded that he would exercise "equitable discretion" to permit the payment of defense costs "even if the proceeds were part of the receivership estate."
In deciding to exercise his discretion to allow the proceeds to be advanced for defense expenses, he noted that "there is no argument that the insurance proceeds are potentially tainted by fraud" and therefore "the Court has not duty to preserve them as such." As for the possibility that the insurance premiums might have been paid with "stolen money," he noted that while this might be "unjust and regrettable," that fact "would not entitle victims to proceeds of policies intended to pay defense costs."
With respect to the receiver’s argument that allowing policy proceeds to fund the individuals’ defense expense would "decrease the coverage dollars eventually available for distribution," Judge Godbey found that "the possibility that the D&O proceeds might one day be paid into the receivership does not justify denying the directors’ and officers’ claims." The judge noted that the receiver "has not yet tendered any claims against the Stanford entities to [the insurer] for a defense," noting further that even if it had, "it is not at all clear" that the insurer would ever pay a claim into the receivership, owing to the insurer’s policy defenses.
Finally, Judge Godbey found that the "interests of fairness" justify allowing the individuals to access the insurance proceeds. The receivership’s potential claims are "speculative" while the individuals "expected that D&O proceeds would afford a defense" and the "potential harm to them if denied is not speculative but real and immediate: they might be unable to defense themselves."
Judge Godbey emphasized that in his ruling that his prior orders the insurer from disbursing policy proceeds to fund the individuals’ defense, he was not holding that any defendant "is entitled to have its defense costs paid by D&O proceeds." Moreover, Judge Godbey emphasized that his October 9 ruling does not authorize the insurer "to pay any claims other than defense costs."
Though Judge Godbey ruled only on Pendergest-Holt’s motion, his ruling expressly "extends to any covered officer or director whose claim is approved" by the insurer. Judge Godbey’s ruling seemingly applies to R. Allen Stanford himself, at least to the extent that the ruling represents a determination that the court’s prior receivership orders are no bar to the insurer advancing defense costs.
Whether the insurer will in fact advance Allen Stanford’s defense expenses may be yet to be determined, notwithstanding the October 9 ruling that the receivership order is no bar. An October 9, 2009 Bloomberg article (here) presumes that as a result of Judge Godbey’s ruling, Stanford is now entitled to have his attorneys’ fees advanced. Indeed, absent a judicial "determination" that Stanford in fact engaged in excluded misconduct, the basis on which the insurer might withhold advancement of Stanford’s defense expenses is not immediately apparent, notwithstanding the seriousness of the allegations against him.
The problem for everyone involved is the sheer number of persons who will seek to have their defense fees paid by the insurance and the extent of the collective defense expense. According to the Bloomberg article, as many as 60 Stanford officials are seeking to use the D&O insurance proceeds to pay their legal bills. Moreover, many of these individuals are involved in numerous civil and criminal proceedings.
The total amount of D&O insurance available is not entirely clear from the published reports. The Bloomberg article variously reports that the total insurance limits are "as much as $50 million" and "as much as $90 million" – kind of a big swing on a rather important detail. But the potential for defense expenses in catastrophic claims to substantial erode or even exhaust insurance programs of a similar magnitude has already been demonstrated in other claims (refer for example here).
Given the seriousness of the allegations and the multiplicity of proceeding involved, the various individuals’ collective defense expenses could quickly erode the available limits, particularly if, as seems possible, Stanford himself accesses the policy proceeds for his defense expenses.
It is worth noting that Judge Godbey exercised his discretion to allow the proceeds to be advanced toward the defense expenses, notwithstanding the Stanford entities’ potential claims, even though this policy reportedly lacked a "priority of payments" provision, which would have given the individual defendants priority to the policy proceeds over the entity, as a matter of policy language. As discussed in an October 4, 2009 Business Insurance article (here), this type of provision is now standard in most D&O insurance policies, and might have helped sort out this dispute, although in the end the outcome apparently would have been no different.
No D&O Policy Coverage Where Claim Made Only Against the Company: In an October 8, 2009 opinion (here), the First Circuit held that a D&O insurance policy does not cover the settlement of a disability discrimination claim that did not name any individual directors and officers as defendants.
The Medical Mutual Insurance Company of Maine had been sued in an administrative proceeding by a former company executive who claimed that the company had discriminated against him due to his stroke-related disability. The administrative proceeding resulted in a "right to sue" letter, pursuant to which the former executive initiated a federal court discrimination lawsuit. Both the administrative complaint and the federal complaint named only the company itself as a defendant.
The company settled the lawsuit and sought coverage under the D&O insurance policy for $325,000 of the settlement amount. The D&O insurer denied coverage under its policy, arguing that because there had been no claim made against an individual director or officer, there was no coverage for the settlement under the policy’s "corporate reimbursement" coverage. (The opinion explains in footnote 3 that while the policy also separately provided "entity coverage" for "securities claims," the discrimination complaint was not a securities claim and accordingly the policy’s separate entity coverage provisions were not implicated.)
In an October 8 opinion written by Judge Bruce Selya, the First Circuit held that the company’s argument that the policy’s coverage extended to claims in which directors and officers were not named as defendants "would if accepted transmogrify D&O policies into comprehensive corporate liability policies," and that "such a transmogrification is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the D&O policy at issue."
The company had argued that the Policy’s claims made requirement had been satisfied because the underlying discrimination complaint consisted "largely of allegations of misconduct on the part of the directors and officers." The First Circuit held that "no matter what conduct the complaint describes, it is not a claim ‘made against’ any of the directors and officers."
The court went on to note that the policy’s separate requirements of both allegations of wrongful acts and for claims against insured persons "are complementary requirements and allegations of wrongful acts, without more, do not satisfy both."
The First Circuit’s opinion is arguably unremarkable, as D&O policies clearly and separately require both allegations of wrongful acts and claims to be made against insured persons.
The only puzzling thing to me about this case is why there was a D&O insurance dispute at all. The more natural place for the company to have looked for coverage for a claim like this is an Employment Practices Liability (EPL) insurance policy. EPL policies are designed to provide coverage for employment-related discrimination claims and generally provide coverage for claims against the insured organization.
Because I was curious, I ran down the parties’ appellate briefs on PACER. As it turns out, and as might have been predicted, the insured company did indeed also submit this claim to its EPL insurer.
As reflected in the D&O insurer’s appellate brief (here, at pages 4-6), not only did the EPL insurer provide the company with a defense for the underlying claim but it also paid $225,000 toward a total settlement amount of $500,000. The remaining $325,000 portion of the settlement amount for which the company sought coverage under the D&O policy represented the amount the company paid in resolution of the former executive’s unpaid contractual severance and benefits, for which the EPL carrier denied coverage under its policy.
So – that explains why this company was trying to stick what is rather obviously an EPL claim into the D&O policy, because there was a portion of the underlying EPL claim settlement for which the EPL policy did not provide coverage.
In any event, congratulations to my friend and former colleague Leslie Ahari, who represented the insurer in this action.
An October 12, 2009 Law.com article discussing the opinion can be found here. Special thanks to alert reader Marty Fox for providing me with a link to the Law.com article.
The Transmogrifier: For reasons unrelated to the merits or even the issues involved, the First Circuit’s opinion is one of my new favorites — it is the first judicial opinion of which I am aware using the words "transmogrify" and "transmogrification." (Judge Selya, the opinion’s author, has a well-established reputation for using flamboyant and occasionally obscure language in his opinions.)
The word "transmogrify" in its various formulations was forever immortalized in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, in which Calvin turned an empty cardboard box into a "transmogrifier," capable of changing a person into "whatever you’d like to be."
There is a truly wonderful website here dedicated exclusively to the Calvin and Hobbes transmogrifier comic strips. And the excuse to be able to link here to the Transmogrifier site is more than enough justification for discussing the First Circuit opinion above.
Please click through to the site and enjoy the comic strips. They will make you smile. You too could consider turning yourself into a "500-story gastropod, a slug the size of the Chrysler Building." However, do keep in mind, as Calvin reminded Hobbes, that "transmogrification is a new technology."