Among perennial D&O insurance issues are questions whether policy coverage is available for defense expenses incurred in connection with investigative costs, subpoenas and the costs associated with special litigation committees. A December 30, 2009 decision in the coverage lawsuit brought by MBIA against its D&O insurers considered all of these recurring issues, and reached some interesting decisions.
For the policy period February 15, 2004 to August 15, 2005, MBIA carried $30 million of D&O insurance, arranged in a primary layer of $15 million and an additional $15 million layer of excess insurance.
In 2001, prior to the policy period, the SEC had issued an Order Directing Private Investigation in connection with certain of MBIA’s loss mitigation insurance products. In November and December 2004, the SEC issues subpoenas to MBIA concerning "nontraditional products." The New York Attorney General also issued subpoenas in November and December 2003 regarding nontraditional products. Both the SEC and the NYAG issues additional subpoenas in March 2005. In spring 2005, MBIA, because of concerns about the cumulative impact in the marketplace, asked regulators to forbear from issuing additional subpoenas and agreed to comply voluntarily with informal document requests.
In October 2005, MBIA submitted an offer of settlement to the SEC in connection with certain specific transactions. In the offer of settlement, MBIA undertook to retain an independent consultant to review MBIA’s accounting for the transactions. In January 2007, the SEC entered a Cease and Desist Order and the NYAG entered an Assurance of Discontinuance, both of which documents largely incorporated the company’s prior offer of settlement. Thereafter the company hired a consultant to undertake the proposed review.
In additional to these regulatory investigations, the company, as nominal defendant, was also sued in two derivative lawsuits, as a result of which the company organized a Special Litigation Committee. An outside law firm "represented the SLC," and according to MBIA, also "represented MBIA through its representation of the SLC." The derivative lawsuits were later dismissed.
MBIA claimed that it has spent $29.5 million in defending or responding to the regulatory investigations and the follow-on litigation. The primary insurer had reimbursed $6.4 million but disputed that it was obliged to reimburse other amount incurred. MBIA filed an action against the two insurers alleging breach of contract and seeking a judicial declaration that the insurers were obligated to reimburse the company for legal fees and other costs associated with the regulatory investigations and the derivative actions. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment.
The December 30 Ruling
The defendant insurance companies had disputed coverage for the investigative items, in part of the grounds that the matters in connection with which the defense costs were incurred were not "securities claims" within the meaning of the primary policy.
The primary policy defined a "securities claim as "a formal or informal administrative or regulatory proceeding or inquiry commenced by the filing of a notice of charges, formal or informal investigative order or similar document" that "in whole or in part, is based upon, arises from or is in consequence of the purchase or sale of, or offer to purchase or sell, any securities issued by" the company.
In his December 30 Order, Southern District of New York Judge Richard M. Berman reviewed each category of defense expense separately.
Judge Berman first considered the defendants’ arguments that there was no coverage for fees incurred in responding to the NYAG’s subpoenas because the subpoenas were not a proceeding commenced by the filing of an "order or similar document." Judge Berman first found that the subpoena, which literally "commanded" compliance, was an "order" within the "common understanding" of "an ordinary businessman." He found further than even if it were not an "order" it was "sufficiently a ‘similar document’ that triggers coverage under the policy."
Judge Berman then considered the certain aspects of the SEC’s investigation, which the defendant insurers contended pertained to "traditional reinsurance" rather loss mitigation products. The defendants argued that the SEC’s 2001 Order Directing Private Investigation pertained only to the investigation of loss mitigation products, and so the SEC’s investigation of traditional reinsurance transactions was not pursuant to an "order."
Judge Berman rejected this argument among other reasons on the grounds that "Defendants have offered no persuasive evidence to support their argument that the SEC ran a series of concurrent investigations."
The defendant insurers also argued that the NYAG’s oral requests for documents pertaining to traditional reinsurance transactions were not pursuant to an "order." Judge Berman found that "defendants point to no persuasive evidence to suggest that the NYAG’s request for documents" relating to the reinsurance transactions "were part of separate investigations."
MBIA had also sought reimbursement for its costs incurred in connection with the independent consultant. Judge Berman found that there was no coverage under the policy for the costs associated with the independent consultant because MBIA "did not permit Defendants to effectively associate with it" because it did not inform the insurers about the independent consultant (and arguably did not get the insurers consent to agree to the independent consultant) "until at least ten months after it had committed to retaining" the independent consultant.
Finally, Judge Berman found that there was coverage under the policy for the fees incurred by counsel for the special litigation committee. MBIA had argued that the law firm had represented MBIA through its representation of the SLC. The carriers argued that the SLC was, by definition, independent, and therefore its counsel could not have represented the company.
In rejecting the insurers’ arguments, Judge Berman found that the SLC’s counsel had appeared as counsel for MBIA in the derivative actions and had filed pleading in the actions on behalf of MBIA. But even assuming that the law firm represented only the SLC, Judge Berman found there would still be coverage, because the SLC was composed of individual members of MBIA’s board who were acting pursuant to delegated authority from the board. Judge Berman noted that "the SLC could readily reach independent decisions without being independent of [MBIA]."
The questions whether the kinds of defense fees in dispute in this case will be covered is often going to be a factor both of the policy language at issue and the specific facts involved. To a certain extent, Judge Berman’s decision may simply be a reflection with a very distinctive set of facts. In particular, it is a rather unusual feature of this set of circumstances that all of the disputed legal fees were incurred after the SEC had entered a formal order of investigation. Given that, it seems as if the only remaining dispute was whether or not the other investigative actions of the regulators were or were not related to the Order.
Judge Berman’s finding of coverage for the SLC legal counsel’s expense may also be a reflection of the fact that the law firm also entered an appearance on the company’s behalf in the derivative suit. These circumstances are not always present in connection with disputes over SLC’s counsel’s fees (although that fact certainly does not answer the question of the SLC’s counsel’s fees incurred prior to making an appearance in the derivative suit.)
But even though the decision may be a reflection of the particular facts involved, Judge Berman’s ruling nevertheless is significant as an example where a court found coverage for fees incurred with regulatory subpoenas, oral document requests, and special litigation counsel fees.
In particular, Judge Berman’s finding that, at least under these circumstances, the policy covered oral document requests and that the policy would have covered the SLC counsel’s defense even if it had not been counsel of record for the company in the derivative suit are particularly noteworthy.
Judge Berman’s finding the policy covered the SLC counsel’s expense because the SLC, though independent, was a committee of the Board operating pursuant to the Board’s delegated authority, is particularly noteworthy, and may represent a basis on which other insureds may seek to argue for coverage for SLC counsel fees.
This interesting case combines a number of frequently disputed issues. I expect that many readers may have reactions to this ruling and I would be very interested in hearing readers’ thoughts.