In a series of recent rulings in coverage litigation arising out of the 2007 collapse of Brookstreet Securities Corporation, a California-based securities broker-dealer, Central District of California Judge Cormac Carney addressed the claims of several claimants to the proceeds of a professional liability insurance policy that had insured the defunct company. Though the rulings are narrow and tied to the specific facts presented, the issues in dispute are likely to recur in claims arising from the subprime meltdown and accordingly the rulings may be of more general interest on that basis.
Brookstreet provided broker dealer services nationwide until mid-2008 when the company experienced a financial collapse. The company ceased operations in June 2007 and is now insolvent.
Brookstreet was insured under a Securities Broker Dealer Professional Liability Insurance Policy for the period November 8, 2006 to November 8, 2007. The policy provides coverage for claims made against Insured Persons for actual or alleged Wrongful Acts in the rendering of "Professional Services." The policy had limits of $3 million.
The policy is an express "claims made and reported" policy, requiring in order for coverage to apply both that the claim be made within the policy period and that notice of claim be given within thirty days and during the policy period.
The insurer brought an action for interpleader and posted a $3 million bond. The insurer then filed three separate motions for summary judgment as to certain separate groups of interpleader defendants, all of whom are in turn claimants against Brookstreet or certain of its former directors, officers or employees.
Judge Carney’s Rulings
In a three separate rulings, Judge Carney addressed each of the insurer’s summary judgment motions.
Claims Made/Late Notice Issues: First, in a November 20, 2009 opinion (here), Judge Carney addressed the insurer’s motion for summary judgment as to the defendant claimants who had not made their claim against Brookstreet prior to the policy’s expiration or with respect to whose claims Brookstreet had not provided notice of claim to the insurer prior to the policy’s expiration.
Judge Carney quickly granted the insurer’s motion as to the claimants whose claims were made after the policy’s expiration, or with respect to whose claims Brookstreet had not provided notice of claim to the insurer during the policy period.
The more interesting questions about notice sufficiency arose with respect to the claimants who had made their claims during the policy period and with respect to whose claims Brookstreet had provded notice of claim during the policy period, but with respect to whose claims Brookstreet had not provided notice within the 30-day period required under the policy.
Judge Carney, enforcing the policy’s notice requirements strictly, found that the insurer was entitled to summary judgment even as to this latter group of claimants. Judge Carney found that the 30-day notice requirement was a "condition precedent" to coverage and that "to force" the insurer to have to demonstrate prejudice in order for the notice provision to be enforced "would be to rewrite the insurance contract, and the Court is unwilling to take this step."
Derivative Claim Exclusion: The insurer had also moved for summary judgment as to those claimants whose claims arose out of or were based on transactions involving Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMO). The insurer relied upon a policy exclusion precluding coverage for claims "based upon, arising out of or attributable to the sale, attempted sale, or servicing of … any type of …derivative." Relying on this exclusion, the insurer argued that the CMOs are derivatives, and therefore the policy precluded coverage for claims relating to the CMOs.
In a November 20, 2009 ruling (here), Judge Carney concluded, based on extensive material provided by the insurer, that CMOs are "derivatives" within the meaning of the policy. Accordingly, he granted summary judgment as to those claimants whose claims were based on CMOs.
Interrelated Acts: The insurer had also moved for summary judgment as to a claimant who asserted that a Brookstreet employee had mismanaged her investments, through a pattern of "churning, making unauthorized trades, buying and selling high risk stocks, and failed to advise [her] of investment losses" during the period 1996 though June 2006.
The insurer argued that her claim arose out of an Interrelated Wrongful Act that first occurred prior to the policy’s September 10, 2002 retroactive date. The insurer further argued that the pre- and post-September 10, 2002 conduct constituted a single, non-covered Interrelated Wrongful Act. The claimant asserted that each of the improper acts was a separate Wrongful Act, and that each time Brookstreet failed to supervise its employee, it also committed a new and discrete Wrongful Act.
In a November 18, 2009 ruling (here), Judge Carney held that while he "does not discount the possibility that [the employee’s] actions may have constituted an Interrelated Wrongful Act …there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether the acts after September 10, 2002 were interrelated with those occurring before that date." Because a "reasonable jury could conclude" that each time the employee "made an unauthorized trade, churned [the claimant’s account] or bought and sold high risk stocks" each was a separate Wrongful Act.
Judge Carney’s rulings are interesting in and of themselves, but they are also interesting for what they suggest more generally.
First, his holding that the claims based on CMOs were precluded from coverage under the Brookstreet policy’s exclusion for derivatives claims is a reminder that the way insurance policies respond to many of the current claims based on complex financial instruments could involve a host of complicated insurance issues.
Although the exclusion that the CMO claims triggered in the Brookstreet case is peculiar to the specific type of insurance policy involved in that case, similar questions could arise under other policies in connection with other claims relating to complex investment securities and other financial instruments.
Many of the types of recurring claims asserted in the current litigation wave (e.g., the auction rate securities suits and the Madoff feeder fund lawsuits) present allegations of the type for which professional liability policies like that involved in the Brookstreet case were designed to respond. However, as the Brookstreet case shows, there potentially could be a host of complex coverage issues associated with many of these claims, depending on the facts alleged and the specific policy language involved.
Second, Judge Carey’s ruling on the interrelatedness issue is a reminder of how difficult interrelatedness questions can be. The term "interrelated" is neither defined in the typical policy nor is it self-defining. At a certain level of generalization, everything in the universe is interrelated, and at the same time, at another level, nothing is interrelated. What makes something interrelated for insurance coverage purposes can become quite situational and subjective, which leads many judges, like Judge Carney here, to want to leave interrelatedness questions to the jury.
Many of the cases in the subprime and credit crisis litigation wave present interrelatedness questions. Different complaints against the same or similar defendants in different policy periods raise the question whether one or several policies have been triggered. Judge Carney’s ruling in this case shows how difficult it may be for carriers seeking to rely on interrelatedness arguments. My own experience, consistent with Judge Carney’s ruling, is that courts tend to resolve interrelatedness questions in a way that maximizes the amount of insurance available.
Finally, Judge Carney’s rulings on the claims made and late notice issues are largely unremarkable, except as pertains to the question of the timeliness of notice for notices provided within the policy period but beyond the 30-day notice period. Judge Carney strictly enforced the policy’s 30-day notice requirement, and declined to even consider arguments based on the absence of prejudice.
Judge Carney’s literal enforcement of the notice requirement is is particularly noteworthy in that his ruling operated to preclude coverage for the claims of claimants where were in no way themselves involved with or responsible for the late provision of notice. ‘
In any event, Judge Carney’s rulings present an interesting case study. Special thanks to a loyal reader for providing me with copies of Judge Carney’s rulings.