A company’s D&O insurance policy provides liability protection for the company’s individual directors and officers, but only for their actions undertaken in their capacities as directors and officers. It does not protect them when they are acting in a personal capacity. So, when a company’s CEO signs a loan guaranty for the company, is he acting in an official or personal capacity, and will the D&O insurance policy provide protection for liability under the guaranty? Those were the questions addressed in a May 14, 2012 decision of a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington. A copy of the opinion can be found here.
In March 2008, S-J Management LLC (SJM) obtained a $3.5 million line of credit from Commerce Bank. Michael Sauter, SJM’s CEO and manager, signed the loan agreement and promissory note in his official capacity on behalf of SJM. In addition Sauter provided Commerce Bank a guaranty, which he signed as “Michael J. Sauter” and which was secured by seven deeds of trust on real property owned by Sauter and his wife.
In May 2009, SJM’s line of credit matured and SJM failed to pay its indebtedness. Commerce Bank demanded that Sauter pay in full under his “personal guaranty of indebtedness” SJM’s $2.8 million obligation. Sauter in turn demanded that SJM indemnify him for the amount he was obligated to pay, to which SJM’s members (of which Sauter was one) agreed. However, SJM was financially unable to indemnify Sauter. After Commerce Bank threatened that Sauter’s failure to cure the default could result in the sale of the six real properties securing the guaranty, SJM’s counsel tendered the bank’s demand to SJM’s D&O insurer.
SJM’s insurer denied coverage with respect to Sauter’s obligation, and Sauter filed an action against the insurer seeking damages and a judicial declaration of coverage. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The trial court denied Sauter’s motion but granted the insurer’s motion, holding that there was no coverage because no act by Sauter constituted a “Wrongful Act” under the policy and Sauter suffered no “Loss” as defined by the Policy. Sauter appealed.
The Appellate Court’s May 14, 2012 Opinion
In an opinion written for the three-judge panel by Judge Stephen J. Dwyer and applying Washington law, the intermediate appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The court noted that the policy provides that an act by an “Insured Person” constitutes a “Wrongful Act” only when that person commits the act “while acting in [his or her] capacity as…such on behalf of the Insured Organization.” An “Insured Person” acts “in his capacity as …such on behalf of the Insured Organization” when that person commits the act in his or her official capacity as a “director, officer, general partner, manager or equivalent executive” of the insured company.
In recognition of this language, the court said that because the policy “explicitly provides coverage for the personal liability of the corporate officer incurred for acts performed in his or her capacity as such,” the policy “does not insure against losses incurred where the officer acts in his or her personal capacity.”
The court said that “the fact that Sauter is an officer of SJM is not dispositive of the question presented,” which is — in what capacity did Sauter sign the guaranty, his capacity as an officer or his personal capacity? The Court noted that “a guaranty executed by a corporate officer that secures the indebtedness of the corporation is not executed in the officers’ official capacity.” Indeed, the execution of the guaranty in an official capacity “would result in the corporation itself guaranteeing its own indebtedness, thus negating the very purpose of the guaranty.”
Because Sauter was acting in his personal capacity when he signed the guaranty, Sauter committed no “Wrongful Act” as defined in SJM’s D&O insurance policy, and thus the court concluded that the policy does not provide coverage for Sauter’s financial obligation to Commerce Bank.
The Court went on to note in addition that any purported “Loss” suffered by Sauter did not result from a “Claim” made against Sauter for a “Wrongful Act.” Rather, the court noted, “Sauter incurred the obligation to pay SJM’s indebtedness by executing the guaranty – not by failing to satisfy his obligation pursuant thereto.” In other words, the court said, “his obligation to Commerce Bank was not the result of Commerce Bank’s demand on the guaranty; instead his obligation was the result of the guaranty itself.” Accordingly, because his obligation to pay was the result of his voluntary undertaking, “it is not a ‘Loss resulting from any Claim … for a Wrongful Act.”
D&O insurance policies protect individual directors and officers. But that protection does not extend to everything those individuals might do. Rather, the protection only extends to their actions undertaken in their capacities as directors and officers, not to actions undertaking in the personal capacities.
There principles are easy to state, but the lines of demarcation between actions undertaken in an official capacity and actions undertaken in a personal capacity may not always be clear. This case illustrates how the lines can sometimes be difficult to discern. Here, it was SJM that wanted to borrow the money, and Sauter was clearly motivated by a desire to facilitate SJM’s borrowing. What matters though is not his motivations but his actions. When he signed the loan agreement and the promissory note, he was clearly acting in his official capacity. But he separately signed a guaranty. Sauter’s guaranty was designed to obligate Sauter not the corporation, and his undertaking was clearly a separate, personal undertaken, as evidence by the fact that the guaranty was secured by deeds of trust on property owned by Sauter and his wife.
There is a further reason why Sauter’s guaranty should not be the responsibility of the insurance company. One cannot undertake an obligation to pay, default on that obligation, and send the bill to the insurance company. For that reason, many courts have held that as a matter of public policy repayment of a contractual obligation does not represent a Loss under a D&O insurance policy. As discussed here, many D&O policies incorporate express contractual liability exclusions.
Coverage disputes arising from the questions of whether or not an individual was or was not actin g in an insured capacity are occur frequently, particularly in connection with smaller or closely held corporations, when an individual’s roles may overlap or run together. It may sometimes be very difficult, for instance, in the context of a closely held company to distinguish when an individual is acting as an investor or shareholder and when the individual is acting as a director or officer.
Indeed, in many instances, individuals may have been acting in dual capacities or multiple capacities, which can make questions concerning coverage for related claims particularly challenging. One critical coverage issue that is sometimes overlooked in the dual capacity context is that to trigger coverage under most policies, an individual need only have been acting in an insured capacity – most policies do not require that the individual have been acting “solely” in an insured capacity. The problem then of course, if the individual is insured only to the extent he or she was acting in an insured capacity, is figuring out the extent of coverage. The fact that these kinds of disputes tend to be very fact-specific does not make them any easier to resolve.
Similar questions can also arise when a director or officer is also acting a director or officer of more than one entity or organization — for example, where an individual is serving at the request of a private equity or venture capital firm on the board of a portfolio company. These concerns are among the many issues that may arise as a result of the interplay between the investment firm’s insurance and the portfolio company’s insurance, as discussed here.
Many thanks to Aidan McCormick of DLA Piper for sending me a copy of the decision. DLA Piper represented the D&O insurer in this case.