Friday, June 14, 2013

California Court Holds Insurer Precluded from Suing Defense Counsel

California’s First District Court of Appeal n J.R. Marketing, LLC v. Hartford Casualty Ins. Co. (1st District, June 11, 2013), recently considered whether an insurance carrier had a right to directly sue the insured’s independent counsel for reimbursement for payment of fees and costs which were allegedly unreasonable or otherwise outside the scope of the insurer’s contractual defense obligations.

The court of appeal’s opinion was its third decision arising from a coverage action involving two liability insurance policies issued by Hartford Casualty Insurance Company to Noble Locks Enterprises, Inc. and J.R. Marketing, LLC.  Hartford had originally denied the tender of defense to it, was sued by various tendering parties, reconsidered the tender and agreed to provide a defense but then delayed in paying defense bills.  The trial court subsequently entered an “enforcement order” requiring Hartford to

… pay the insured cross-defendants’ outstanding invoices within 15 days and to pay “all future reasonable and necessary defense costs within 30 days of receipt.”  Acknowledging a right of reimbursement, the enforcement order provided, “[t]o the extent Hartford seeks to challenge fees and costs as unreasonable or unnecessary, it may do so by way of reimbursement after resolution of the Avganim matter.  (Citation omitted.)

The court further held that Hartford was not entitled to any of the protections afforded insurers in California Civil Code section 2860 because it had breached and continued to breach its obligations to pay reasonable and necessary defense expenses and to provide “Cumis” counsel.  The enforcement order was affirmed in 2007 by the appellate court in an unpublished decision.  Hartford subsequently paid over $15 million to the insureds’ independent counsel for its fees and costs.

The present appeal was taken from a judgment of dismissal following the sustaining of demurrers, without leave to amend, to a cause of action for reimbursement against the law firm defending the insureds in the underlying actions (and which had prosecuted the coverage action), and against a non-insured also represented by that law firm.

Initially, the appellate court reiterated that Hartford did not have any rights under section 2860 because of its original breach of the duty to defend.  Included in those rights is the right to arbitrate fee disputes.  The court stated that allowing Hartford to sue the independent counsel for reimbursement would frustrate several of the underlying principles behind section 2860, including the insured’s right to control the defense when the insurer has breached its obligations to defend the insured:

As set forth above, it is clear California law bars an insurer, like Hartford, in breach of its duty to defend from thereafter imposing on its insured its own choice of defense counsel, fee arrangement or strategy.  This court now takes the law one slight step further by holding Hartford likewise barred from later maintaining a direct suit against independent counsel for reimbursement of fees and costs charged by such counsel for crafting and mounting the insureds’ defense where Hartford considers those fees unreasonable or unnecessary. 

It was stated that to hold otherwise would give a breaching carrier greater rights than an insurance carrier which had complied with its duty to defend an insured, by allowing the breaching carrier to have a court determine the fee dispute.  It was also noted that the court was not determining whether an insurer could sue independent counsel for fraudulent billing practices.  Instead the decision was that where a carrier has breached its duty to defend and a billing dispute subsequently arises with regard to the fees and costs incurred by independent counsel, the insurer’s sole remedy is a claim against the insured, not independent counsel.

The court also found that there were no grounds to reverse the dismissal of the reimbursement claim against the non-insured party also defended by the independent counsel in an underlying action, because Hartford had failed to allege facts supporting such a claim and had not supported its appeal by reference in its opening brief to legal authority and citations to the appellate record.

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