The Ninth Circuit Resolves Split in Authority, Holds that Only Insureds Under First-Party Policies Can Bring Claims Under Washington’s IFCA

Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act (“IFCA”) provides insureds with a statutory cause of action against their insurers for wrongful denials of coverage, in addition to a traditional bad faith cause of action. Unlike a bad faith cause of action, the IFCA allows for enhanced damages under certain circumstances. Under the language of the statute, “any first party claimant to a policy of insurance” may bring a claim under IFCA against its insurer for the unreasonable denial of a claim for coverage or payment of benefits. There has been a split of authority in Washington among both the state appellate courts and federal district courts regarding whether the term “first-party claimant” refers only to first-party policies (i.e., a homeowner’s policy or commercial property policy) or whether it refers to insureds under both first-party and liability policies (e.g., CGL policies which cover the insured’s liability to others). The IFCA expressly defines the phrase “first-party claimant” as “an individual, … or other legal entity asserting a right to payment as a covered person under an insurance policy or insurance contract arising out of the occurrence of the contingency or loss covered by such a policy or contract.”

The Washington Court of Appeals, Division One, held that a “first-party claimant” means an insured under both first-party and liability policies (Trinity Universal Ins. Co. of Kansas v. Ohio Casualty Ins. Co., 176 Wn.App. 185 (2013)), but Division Three held that the IFCA applies exclusively to first-party insurance contracts (Tarasyuk v. Mutual of Enumclaw Insurance Co., 2015 Wash. App. LEXIS 2124 (2015)).

In the federal courts, the majority of decisions from the Western District of Washington have held that an insured with third-party coverage or first-party coverage can be a “first-party claimant” under IFCA. Navigators Specialty Ins. Co. v. Christensen, Inc., 140 F. Supp. 3d 11097 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 3, 2015 ) (Judge Coughenour); City of Bothell v. Berkley Regional Specialty Ins. Co., 2014 U. S. Dist. LEXIS 145644 (W.D. Wash. Oct. 10, 2014) (Judge Lasnik); Cedar Grove Composting, Inc. v. Ironshore Specialty Ins. Co., 2015 U. S. Dist. LEXIS 71256 (W.D. Wash. June 2, 2015) (Judge Jones); Workland & Witherspoon, PLLC v. Evanston Ins. Co., 141 F.Supp.3d 1148 (E.D. Wash. Oct. 29, 2015) (Judge Peterson). These decisions held that any insured who has a right to file a claim under the insurance policy is a “first-party claimant” under the IFCA regardless of whether the policy provides first-party or third-party coverage.

However, Judge Pechman of the Western District of Washington ruled that an insured with third-party coverage is not a “first-party claimant” under IFCA in Cox v. Continental Casualty Co., 2014 U. S. Dist. LEXIS 68081 (W.D. Wash. May 16, 2014) and two subsequent cases. In Cox, Judge Pechman dismissed plaintiff’s IFCA claim on the ground that the insurance policy was a “third-party policy,” i.e. a third-party liability policy, and therefore the insured (who assigned his claim to the plaintiffs) was not a “first-party claimant.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the Cox decision on appeal, effectively resolving the split of authority in the federal courts in favor of a more limited interpretation of the IFCA. Cox v. Continental Casualty Co., 2017 U.S. App. 11722 (9th Cir. June 30, 2017).

Those watching this issue and looking for a reasoned analysis resolving the split of authority among the federal district courts in Washington will be disappointed, as the Ninth Circuit provided no basis for its holding on the issue, not even a recognition of the split among the courts. On the issue, the Court merely stated “[t]he policy in question is not a first party policy; thus, the Plaintiffs, standing in [the insured’s] shoes, cannot be a first party claimant.” The court’s failure to provide its reasoning for this holding is surprising, given that the parties addressed the split of authority in their briefs. Nonetheless, insurers should take note of this important decision limiting the scope of the IFCA in Washington’s federal courts.

The Oregon Supreme Court Again Offers Expansive View of the Fee-Shifting Statute But Provides Clarity to Insurers on Minimizing Fee Awards

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.

Oregon State and Federal District Courts Interpret Insurance Fee Shifting Statute Broadly

In Oregon, ORS 742.061 authorizes an award of attorney fees to an insured that prevails in “an action…in any court of this state upon any policy of insurance of any kind or nature…” The Oregon Supreme Court, in Morgan v. Amex Assurance Co., 352 Or. 363, 287 P.3d 1038 (2012), addressed whether this fee shifting statute applies to insurance policies issued outside of Oregon, as a later enacted statute, ORS 742.001, provides that ORS Chapter 742 “appl[ies] to all insurance policies delivered or issued for delivery in this state…” In Morgan, the Oregon Supreme Court concluded, after considering the text, context and the legislative history, that the legislature did not intend for ORS 742.001 to limit the scope of ORS 742.061. The Court held, therefore, that ORS 742.001 permits an award of attorney fees to an insured that prevails in an action in an Oregon court on “any policy of insurance of any kind or nature,” even if the policy was delivered or issued for delivery in another state. The Oregon Supreme Court noted that to hold otherwise would be “to turn an expansion of the state’s authority to impose substantive regulations on insurers transacting business in Oregon into a limitation on the remedial and procedural rules that affect insurers appearing in its courts.”

Now, insureds and insurers in Oregon are looking to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for an answer to whether ORS 742.061 applies only to Oregon state courts, as the statute specifically states that it applies “in an action…in any court of this state…” (emphasis added). Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. v. Continental Casualty Corp., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160031 (D. Or. November 12, 2014). In Schnitzer Steel, the insured, as the prevailing party in a coverage action, moved for attorneys’ fees in the amount of $3,483,878.00. Continental opposed, arguing that the plain language of ORS § 742.061 does not apply because the statute plainly states that it is limited to an action “brought in any court of this state upon any policy of insurance…” Continental argued that because Schnitzer did not bring its claim in a court of Oregon, but rather a court in Oregon, the statute does not apply. Continental based its argument on Simonoff v. Expedia, Inc., 653 F.3d 1202 (9th Cir. 2011), a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that interpreted the phrase “the courts of” in the context of a forum selection clause. In Simonoff, the Ninth Circuit held:

We conclude[] that the choice of the preposition “of” in the phrase “the courts of Virginia” was determinative — “of” is a term “denoting that from which anything proceeds; indicating origin, source, descent, and the like.”  Thus, the phrase “the courts of” a state refers to courts that derive their power from the state — i.e. only state court — and the forum selection clause, which vested exclusive jurisdiction in the courts “of” Virginia, limited jurisdiction to the Virginia state courts.

Simonoff at 1205-06.

While Judge Mosman found Continental’s argument “very interesting” and rejected all but one of Schnitzer’s arguments in the reply as “very weak,” Judge Mosman adopted Schnitzer’s one argument based on Erie principles and ruled that ORS 742.061 applies to cases commenced in Oregon federal courts. Judge Mosman held that the Erie doctrine together with good public policy dictate that ORS § 742.061 should apply in this case as its holding – that ORS 742.061 applies to both federal and state courts of Oregon – will “avoid the intrastate forum shopping that Erie is intended to prevent and it would support the stated purpose of this statute by not creating an easy backdoor to thwart any impact it might have on encouraging settlements or discouraging unreasonable rejections of insurance claims.”  Id. *11-12.

Continental has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It will be interesting to see how the Ninth Circuit will address the issue pertaining to ORS 742.061 in light of its decision in Simonoff. It is possible that because the issue pertains to the construction of an Oregon statute, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may certify the question at issue to the Oregon Supreme Court.

Through the Magnifying Glass: What an Insured May Recover Beyond Damages against its Insurer under Washington Law

Earlier this year, the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington provided a detailed analysis of the categories of damages available to a prevailing insured in a breach of contract action against an insurer, including prejudgment interest, costs and attorneys’ fees. MKB Constructors v. Am. Zurich Ins. Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9325 (W.D. Wash. Jan. 27, 2015). In MKB, the insured was awarded more than $2.35 million in damages, comprised of (1) $1,083,424.24 for breach of contract, (2) $274,482.47 for violation of Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act (“IFCA”), (3) $862,000 in enhanced damages under IFCA, and (4) $138,000 for failure to act in good faith (later overturned as duplicative of the IFCA damages). Following the verdict, the insured moved for prejudgment interest, nontaxable costs, and attorneys’ fees.

Prejudgment Interest

The parties did not dispute that the insured was entitled to prejudgment interest on the liquidated portions of its award. Rather, the issues were which rate to apply and when the interest began to accrue. Under Washington law, a twelve percent prejudgment interest rate is applied to contract disputes, but a lower rate of two percentage points above prime is applied to tort claims. RCW 4.56.110. The parties agreed that only one rate should apply, but disagreed as to whether the judgment was primarily based in tort or in contract. The insured asserted that the judgment was based primarily in contract because the majority of the liquidated portion of the award was for breach of contract. The insurer argued that the Court must consider the judgment as a whole and not just its liquidated components. The Court agreed with the insurer, citing Unigard Ins. Co.v. Mutual of Enumclaw Ins. Co., 160 Wn.App. 912 (Wash. Ct. App. 2011). The Court then compared the amount awarded for breach of contract to the greater total amount awarded for the tort claims based on bad faith and IFCA and concluded that the judgment was primarily based in tort. Accordingly, the Court applied the lower pre-judgment interest rate.

For the prejudgment interest accrual date, the parties agreed that under Washington law prejudgment interest should run from the date each particular invoice was paid. The insured argued, however, that the volume of invoices would make such a calculation an unreasonable burden. The Court agreed to two dates proposed by the insured for the commencement of prejudgment interest, one with respect to the invoices related to the breach of contract and another for its attorney’s invoices, based on the insured’s confirmation that these dates would not prejudice the insurer, and in fact would result in a net benefit to the insurer.

Attorney’s Fees

The insured sought a 33% increase of the total award to account for the contingent fee paid to its counsel. The Court rejected this request as unprecedented. Rather, Washington law presumes that a properly calculated lodestar figure represents reasonable compensation for counsel. A “lodestar” fee is determined by multiplying a reasonable hourly rate by the number of hours reasonably expended in the lawsuit.

The insurer disputed the reasonableness of the attorneys’ hours based on improper block-billing, unnecessary participation by a third attorney added just before trial, and for time spent on unsuccessful claims. Based on its review of the invoices, the Court reduced the block-billed entries by 20%. The Court did not deduct time for the third attorney added just before trial, because the addition of the attorney for trial was neither unusual nor excessive. The Court found that certain work related to discovery and dispositive motions were unnecessary and insufficiently related to the overall success of the litigation to warrant an award of fees. Rather than undertake an hour-by-hour analysis of the attorneys’ fees in order to excise the precise number of hours attributable to these items, the Court estimated, based on its experience with the case that an overall 20% reduction in the claimed fees would sufficiently account for the hours spent on these items.

Litigation Costs

Lastly, the insured sought reimbursement of litigation costs, totaling $160,580.50, which consisted of (1) expert witness fees; (2) travel expenses; (3) the insured’s labor costs; and (4) litigation costs advanced by counsel. The expert fees and travel expenses were uncontested.  In dispute were the labor costs and litigation costs advanced by counsel.

The Court held that the insured’s recovery of wages for employees who testified or otherwise participated in the lawsuit would be an unprecedented stretch of both IFCA and case authority permitting an award of costs. On the same basis, the Court denied recovery for fees paid to secure the attendance at trial of its former employees that were in excess of the statutory amount for fact witnesses provided by RCW 2.40.010. The Court rejected the insured’s argument that the payment of these witnesses was “akin” to an expert witness fee, since Washington courts have expressly disallowed such fees to fact or occurrence witnesses.

The Court also trimmed the insured’s request for over $52,000 in costs advanced by counsel.  “Actual and statutory litigation costs, including expert witness fees” may be awarded under IFCA.  Additionally, Washington case authority permits the court to award “all of the expenses necessary to establish coverage” in order to make the insured “whole.” Panorama Village Condo. Owners Ass’n Bd. Of Dirs. v. Allstate Ins. Co., 26 P.3d 910, 917 (Wash. 2001) (bolding in original). The Court ruled that the following costs should be reimbursed: (1) costs associated with electronic legal research; (2) photocopying; (3) messenger and Federal Express fees; (4) court reporter and videographer fees; (5) travel to depositions; (6) telephone conference fees; (7) PACER fees; and (8) hotel rooms near the courthouse for witnesses.

However, the Court declined to award certain costs that were not “litigation costs” such as a mediation fee; costs that were part of routine daily life and would have been incurred without trial such as costs for local attorneys’ commuting, lodging and meals during trial; and costs that were excessive, such as daily trial transcriptions.

The MKB decision should serve as a useful guide in future fee award cases and as a warning that courts in Washington should not “rubber stamp” an award in favor of the insured but should carefully scrutinize all components of the insured’s demand.