Every now and then, I read a court opinion on a coverage issue, and though I can understand how the court reached its decision, I still find the outcome surprising and troubling. A January 19, 2010 per curiam opinion from the Connecticut Supreme Court (here) involving a coverage dispute under an Employment Practices Liability (EPL) policy presents a recent example of this kind of decision. The court’s analysis is internally logical, but I suspect the outcome would surprise most EPL policyholders and even many insurance practitioners. The decision may have important implications for the placement and administration of EPL insurance.
Background and the Connecticut Supreme Court’s Decision
National Waste Associates was purchased an EPL policy for the period February 15, 2007 to February 15, 2009. On May 12, 2007, a former employee brought a wrongful discharge action against National Waste. National Waste submitted the claim to its EPL carrier. The carrier refused to provide a defense or to indemnify the firm. National Waste filed a lawsuit seeking a judicial declaration of coverage.
The carrier took the position that coverage was precluded by the EPL policy’s prior or pending action exclusion. The exclusion provides that the policy does not provide coverage for any claim "based upon, arising out of, [etc.] … any fact, circumstance, situation, transaction, event or wrongful act underlying or alleged in any prior or pending civil, criminal or administrative or regulatory proceeding."
The carrier contended that the prior or pending action exclusion had been triggered by the proceedings the employee had brought in 2005 to obtain unemployment benefits. As later recited by the Connecticut Supreme Court in its review of the case, the former employee had claimed, both in pursuing unemployment benefits and in the later wrongful discharge action, that she had been wrongfully discharged after resisting National Waste’s alleged invasion of her privacy.
The trial court agreed with the carrier that the unemployment benefit proceedings clearly constituted prior "administrative proceedings" within the meaning of the policy and granted the carrier’s motion for summary judgment. National Waste appealed.
In its January 19 per curiam opinion, the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed the trial court, adopting the trial court’s reasoning.
The court’s reasoning is straightforward and internally logical, particularly if the unemployment benefits proceeding is, as seems to be the case, fairly characterized as an "administrative proceeding" within the meaning of the policy.
But as noted in a January 21, 2010 memorandum about the ruling from the Murtha Cullina law firm entitled "Employment Practices Liability Insurance: Surprise Coverage Interpretation" (here), the outcome "no doubt shocked" the employer. The law firm memo identifies the sharp distinction between, for example the circumstances that might be involved had the former employee raised an EEOC charge of discrimination in a prior period, and the circumstances actually presented, with the former employee’s prior filing of proceedings for unemployment benefits.
As the law firm memo observes:
Unemployment compensation claims are not only very common, but they are typically handled very differently by employers. (For example, employers rarely if ever engage legal counsel to attend unemployment compensation hearings.) The standard for denying unemployment benefits is so high that employers often do not even contest the claims. Even if they do contest, most former employees who lose their jobs for any reason collect benefits. If fact, a claim for unemployment benefits is not even really a claim "against" the employer – it is a claim for state benefits that are funded by a tax on all employers. Moreover no EPLI policy provides coverage for unemployment claims.
In light of all of these practical circumstances, it would come as an unexpected and inexplicable revelation to most employers to learn that an unemployment benefits claims in one policy period could preclude coverage for an employment practices claim in another period. The implication is that the employer has to notify their EPL carrier of the unemployment benefits claim in order to preserve EPL coverage if the former employed later files an employment practices claim.
Most employers would be completely astonished to learn that their EPL carrier expects to be provided with notice of unemployment benefits proceedings. Indeed the revelation of this expectation is so unanticipated that it has the feel of a trap for the unwary.
The message for policyholders and their advisors hoping to avoid the trap seems to be that companies should provide carriers with notice of every single instance where an employee or former employee seeks unemployment benefits. However, given the frequency of these types of proceedings, I suspect strongly that if policyholders gave notice of every instance where an employee or former employee is seeking unemployment benefits, the carriers would quickly find themselves drowning in paper. I doubt the carriers would really want what would ensue.
And regardless of what the carriers may want or even expect, it is a serious question whether, as a practical matter, it is fair to penalize companies for failing to take actions that the most companies would have no idea are required of them.
This may be one of those instances where the professional liability industry needs to come together to craft a solution to prevent an outcome that no one could possibly really want. (I have in mind the recent sequence of events where the D&O industry, in order to avert the consequences of an unexpected coverage decision, quickly took steps to try to eliminate the possibility of a carrier arguing that a Section 11 settlement did not represent covered "Loss.)
Maybe I am being optimistic, but perhaps policyholder representative and the carriers can find a solution that will ensure that EPL insurers will not take the position that an action for employment benefits is not a "claim" or an "administrative action" within the meaning of the policy.
I recognize that some readers may take exception, perhaps strong exception, to my analysis. I invite readers to submit their views using the comment feature on this blog.