East Versus West: Washington Federal District Courts Offer Differing Views on IFCA Claims

The Washington Insurance Fair Conduct Act (“IFCA”) is generating some interesting divisions in the Washington Federal District Courts. As previously reported, Judge Marsha J. Pechman recently ruled in May, 2015 that an IFCA cause of action is only available to insureds under first party insurance policies, but not third party liability policies. This post discusses how cases brought under the IFCA are being examined differently between the Eastern and Western Federal District Courts of Washington.

As a brief background, IFCA (RCW 48.30.015) states, in part, as follows:

(1) Any first party claimant to a policy of insurance who is unreasonably denied a claim for coverage or payment of benefits by an insurer may bring an action in the superior court of this state to recover the actual damages sustained, together with the costs of the action, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and litigation costs, as set forth in subsection (3) of this section.

(2) The superior court may, after finding that an insurer has acted unreasonably in denying a claim for coverage or payment of benefits or has violated a rule in subsection (5) of this section, increase the total award of damages to an amount not to exceed three times the actual damages.

(3) The superior court shall, after a finding of unreasonable denial of a claim for coverage or payment of benefits, or after a finding of a violation of a rule in subsection (5) of this section, award reasonable attorneys’ fees and actual and statutory litigation costs, including expert witness fees, to the first party claimant of an insurance contract who is the prevailing party in such an action.

(5) A violation of any of the following is a violation for the purposes of subsections (2) and (3) of this section:

(a) WAC 284-30-330, captioned “specific unfair claims settlement practices defined”;

(b) WAC 284-30-350, captioned “misrepresentation of policy provisions”;

(c) WAC 284-30-360, captioned “failure to acknowledge pertinent communications”;

(d) WAC 284-30-370, captioned “standards for prompt investigation of claims”;

(e) WAC 284-30-380, captioned “standards for prompt, fair and equitable settlements applicable to all insurers”; or

(f) An unfair claims settlement practice rule adopted under RCW 48.30.010 by the insurance commissioner intending to implement this section. The rule must be codified in chapter 284-30 of the Washington Administrative Code.

The Western Federal District Courts have held that an IFCA cause of action is only available if the insured shows that the insurer unreasonably denied a claim for coverage or that the insurer unreasonably denied payment of benefits, but not if the insurer only violated the Washington Administrative Code (“WAC”) provisions. Lease Crutcher Lewis WA, LLC v. National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110866 (W.D. Wash. October 15, 2010); Weinstein & Riley, P.S. v. Westport Ins. Corp., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26369 (W.D. Wash. March 14, 2011); Phinney v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22328 (W.D. Wash. February 22, 2012); Cardenas v. Navigators Ins. Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 145194 (W.D. Wash. December 16, 2011).

However, the Eastern Federal District Courts have rejected the precedent set by the Western Federal District Courts and have held that a violation of the enumerated WAC provisions is an independent basis for a cause of action, regardless of coverage or benefits. Merrill v. Crown Life Ins. Co., 22 F. Supp.3d 1137 (E.D. Wash. 2014); Hell Yeah Cycles v. Ohio Sec. Ins. Co., 16 F. Supp.3d 1224 (E.D. Wash. 2014); Hover v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119162 (E.D. Wash. September 12, 2014).

In Langley v. GEICO Gen. Ins. Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26079 (E.D. Wash. February 24, 2015), the Court noted that it is “not persuaded that an IFCA cause of action requires a denial of coverage or benefit… The opinions [from the Western District] do not provide any analysis of the statutory construction they utilized to reach their conclusions, and appear to only be looking for express causes of action without determining whether the IFCA creates an implied cause of action for violation of an enumerated WAC.” The Court in Langley then continued by reviewing the elements for an implied cause of action, i.e. whether the plaintiff is “within the class for whose ‘especial’ benefit the statute was enacted”; whether “legislative intent, explicitly or implicitly, supports creating or denying a remedy”; and “whether implying a remedy is consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislation.” The Court determined that the plaintiff, as first party claimant under an insurance policy, was within the class of those that the legislature sought to protect; that the legislative intent was to create a claim for violating the enumerated WACs in both the language in the statute and the explanation of that language provided to the voters; and that implying a remedy is consistent with the IFCA’s purpose. As a result, the Court concluded that “at a minimum, an independent implied cause of action exists under the IFCA for a first party claimant to bring a suit for a violation of the enumerated WAC provisions.” The Court rejected “the progeny of cases from the Western District of Washington which reached a different conclusion.”

In light of the inconsistencies in the Washington Federal District Courts, it is important for insurers to understand the jurisdictional differences when evaluating an IFCA claim. In addition, insurers should be particularly sensitive to efforts by policyholders to establish jurisdiction in the more favorable Eastern Federal District Courts.