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.