In a March 23, 2010 Summary Order (here), the Second Circuit affirmed the March 2, 2009 ruling of Southern District of New York Judge Gerald Lynch, in which he held that the excess insurers’ prior knowledge exclusion precluded coverage under their policies for claims brought against former Refco directors and officers.
As detailed in a prior post about Judge Lynch’s district court order (here), at the time that the Refco scandal emerged, Refco had $70 million of D&O insurance arranged in multiple layers. The primary and first level excess insurers advanced their entire combined $17.5 million limits of liability in payment of defense expenses. In a separate ruling not involved in this appeal, Judge Lynch ruled that the second level excess insurer also must advance its defense expense.
In his March 2, 2009 ruling (here), Judge Lynch granted summary judgment for the third and fourth level excess insurers, based on exclusions in those policies (not found in the underlying policies) precluding coverage for claims arising from any facts or circumstances of which "any insured" had knowledge at policy inception and that might reasonably be expected to give rise to the claim. (In a portion of his opinion not relevant to this appeal, Judge Lynch denied summary judgment as to the fifth level excess insurer.)
The critical question before Judge Lynch was whether the knowledge of the fraudulent scheme of Refco’s CEO Phillip Bennett could be imputed to the other directors and officers. These individual had sought to rely on so-called severability provisions in the primary policy, to which the excess policies were "follow form," and from which they sought to argue that the prior knowledge exclusion was not applicable to them. Their argument was that Bennett’s knowledge could not be imputed to them due to the non-imputation language in the primary policy’s severability provision.
Judge Lynch rejected their argument that the severability provision in the primary policy precluded the operation of the prior knowledge exclusion in the excess policy.
The Second Circuit’s March 23 Summary Order
In its March 23 Summary Order, the Second Circuit expressly adopted Judge Lynch’s "comprehensive and well-reasoned analysis." The Court quoted Judge Lynch’s language that "in the context of the [prior knowledge exclusion] the words ‘any insured’ unambiguously precludes coverage for innocent coinsureds."
The Second Circuit also expressly affirmed that because the exclusionary language in the excess policy "cannot be reconciled with the severability language provision of the underlying policy, the language in the excess policy controls." The Second Circuit also affirmed that the claims against the individuals come within the "arising out of" preamble of the exclusion.
As I detailed in my prior discussion of Judge Lynch’s opinion, this case illustrates the complicated ways that the various components of a single D&O insurance program can operate in unanticipated ways to produce unexpected results. The case also demonstrates the extent to which supposed "follow form" excess coverage is not always truly "follow form."
The outcome also underscores the importance of application and exclusion severability issues not just at the primary levels but all the way up the insurance tower.
My other ruminations about this outcome are set forth at length in my prior post about Judge Lynch’s opinion.
The Second Circuit’s Summary Order states on its face that it has no precedential effect. However, the practical effect of the Summary Order is the validation of Judge Lynch’s analysis, to which future litigants undoubtedly will refer.
It is probably worth noting that while Judge Lynch was a district court judge in March 2009 when he wrote his coverage opinion in the Refco case, by the time the Second Circuit got around to reviewing the case, Judge Lynch had become a member of the Second Circuit bench, where his new Circuit Court colleagues found his prior work as a district court judge to be "comprehensive and well reasoned." Perhaps the preservation of domestic tranquility around the courthouse water-cooler requires no less.
Special thanks to Neil McCarthy of Lawyer Links for providing me with a copy of the Second Circuit’s Summary Order.