The Oregon Supreme Court Again Offers Expansive View of the Fee-Shifting Statute But Provides Clarity to Insurers on Minimizing Fee Awards
By Sally Kim and Shannon Wodnik on March 14, 2017
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In Oregon, ORS 742.061 authorizes an award of attorney fees to an insured that prevails in an action against an insurer. While there have been several Court of Appeals cases addressing this statute in the UIM context, the Oregon Supreme Court last ruled on ORS 742.061 in 2012, holding that the statute is not limited to actions on policies issued in Oregon, but that it applies broadly, to “any policy of insurance of any kind or nature.” Morgan v. Amex Assurance Co., 287 P.3d 1038 (Or. 2012).
Under a similar analysis, consisting of an examination of the statute’s text and context, along with any useful legislative history, the Oregon Supreme Court addressed another aspect of ORS 742.061 in Long v. Farmers Ins. Co. of Oregon, 360 Or. 791 (2017). Specifically, the Oregon Supreme Court addressed whether an insurer’s voluntary mid-litigation payments can eliminate the right to attorneys’ fees under the fee-shifting statute.
In Long, Plaintiff discovered a leak under her kitchen sink that caused extensive damage to her home. She filed a claim with Farmers, and on January 17, 2012, and Farmers voluntarily paid $3,300.45 to Plaintiff for the actual cash value of the loss. Around that time, Farmers also paid $2,169.22 to Plaintiff for mitigation expenses. However, the Plaintiff submitted a proof of loss that exceeded the sum that Farmers had paid. The parties had not resolved Plaintiff’s claims a year later, so she commenced a lawsuit against Farmers. After appraisal, Farmers made two additional voluntary payments to Plaintiff – one payment in the amount of $2,467.09 on July 11, 2013 and another payment in the amount of $4,766.80 on August 14, 2013 – for the actual cash value that the appraisers had assigned to certain of Plaintiff’s claimed losses and mitigation costs.
Six months later, in February 2014, shortly before trial, Plaintiff submitted proof of loss for the replacement cost of her losses. Three days later, Farmers voluntarily paid $4,214.18 to Plaintiff for the replacement cost of Plaintiff’s undisputed losses. Farmers subsequently prevailed at trial. Nonetheless, Plaintiff filed a petition for attorney fees under ORS 742.061.
Under ORS 742.061, an insurer must pay the insured’s attorney fees if, in the insured’s action against the insurer, the insured obtains a recovery that exceeds the amount of any tender made by the insurer within six months from the date that the insured first filed proof of a loss. In Long, the issue before the Court was the meaning of the word “recovery.” The insured argued that the word “recovery” means any kind of restoration of a loss, i.e. judgment, settlement, voluntary payment or some other means, after an action on an insurance policy has been filed. Accordingly, any post-complaint payments made by an insurer would support an insured’s claim for fees under the statute. On the other hand, Farmers argued that the word “recovery” means a money judgment in the action in which attorney fees are sought. Farmers argued that attorney fees may be awarded only if the insured obtains a money judgment that exceeds any tender made by the insurer within the first six months after proof of loss.
Because this dispute is a matter of statutory interpretation, the Oregon Supreme Court examined ORS 742.061’s text and context, as well as any useful legislative history. The Court noted that it has repeatedly instructed that the terms of ORS 742.061 and its predecessors should be interpreted in light of their function within the statute’s overall purpose, and if it heeded that instruction in this case, “it becomes evident that the term ’recovery‘ must be read to include mid-litigation payments such as the ones that Farmers made.”
The Oregon Supreme ultimately concluded that the fact that Plaintiff did not obtain a “judgment” memorializing Farmers’ mid-litigation payments did not make ORS 742.061 inapplicable. The Court further clarified that a “declaration of coverage is not sufficient to make ORS 742.061 applicable; an insured must obtain a monetary recovery after filing an action, although that recovery need not be memorialized in a judgment.” Id. at 805.
Based upon that clarification, the Court held that Plaintiff was entitled to attorney fees for the work performed by her attorney up until the time that Farmers made voluntary payments to Plaintiff in July and August of 2013. This is because by then, Plaintiff had brought an action on her insurance policy and, by virtue of Farmers’ July and August payments, Plaintiff had “recovered” more in that action than Farmers had tendered in the first six months after proof of loss.
The Court continued, however, that Plaintiff was not entitled to her attorney fees that accrued after the July and August 2013 payments. First, the voluntary payments made by Farmers in February 2014 were payments for the replacement value of Plaintiff’s loss, for which Plaintiff filed her proof of loss. That proof of loss for replacement value triggered the six-month period for settlement of Plaintiff’s claim for the replacement value of her losses under ORS 742.061, and Farmers made payments for the replacement cost within the six-month period, as mandated by the statute.
Second, except for the two replacement cost payments that Farmers made in February 2014, Plaintiff did not recover, after August 2013, any amount over and above what Farmers had already paid. At trial, Plaintiff sought but was unsuccessful in obtaining any greater sum. Thus, because Plaintiff’s recovery after Farmers’ August 2013 payment did not exceed Farmers’ timely tender, Plaintiff was not entitled to attorney fees under ORS 742.061 for work performed by her attorney after that date.
This case demonstrates how important it is for insurance companies to keep track of when voluntary payments are made and the potential impact of those payments on their ability to minimize an insured’s entitlement to attorney’s fees under ORS 742.061.