From time to time I remind my insurer clients that before a first-party insurance claim has been investigated and coverage denied, not everything they or their adjusters write to me or I write to them is protected from discovery by the doctrine of attorney-client privilege. I also remind them that my role is not to assist them in the investigation of a claim, but to provide a legal advice and opinion to them regarding whether a particular loss and its related claim are covered under the particular policy at issue.
Why do I remind my insurer clients of this? Because some New York courts consider outside counsel who assist their insurer clients in investigating first-party property losses and claims to be performing “claim handling activities” that are subject to discovery. And because of cases like this one.
On October 13, 2020 UPCIC issued a notice of cancellation, citing the policyholder’s failure to send requested self-inspection photos to confirm the property’s condition. On October 16, 2020, UPCIC emailed the insured’s agent to advise that home inspection photos showed the roof to be in very poor condition, but that UPCIC would rescind the policy cancellation if the roof was fully replaced before the cancellation date of November 17, 2020.
In investigating the fire, UPCIC learned that:
- the roof was approximately 27 years old;
- construction of a substantial addition to the home had begun after the September 17, 2020 closing date, was underway at the time of the fire, and was not expected to be complete until January 2021; and
- the plaintiffs were not occupying the home at the time of the policy’s application, but had moved into the house on October 1, 2020.
UPCIC’s investigation of the loss and claim included retaining outside counsel on November 17, 2020 to conduct an examination under oath of the policyholder, which was done on December 11, 2020.
On January 19 2021, UPCIC rescinded the policy and denied coverage, stating, in part:
UPC has determined that you made material misrepresentations and/or false statements on the Application for Insurance. The misrepresentations identified include, but are not limited to, false statements and/or concealment of the age of the roof, condition of the roof, concealment of renovations and/or construction efforts, questionable habitability of the subject premise, occupancy, etc. Had UPC known the true facts, the policy would not have been issued or would have been written under different terms, conditions, and premiums. As a result, the policy issued by UPC, policy number *****, will be rescinded and any policy premiums paid to date will be refunded. Therefore, there is no coverage available for the above-referenced loss. UPC denies any and all coverage.
On January 22, 2021, UPCIC sent the plaintiffs a “Policy Voidance” letter based on “[m]isrepresentation of material facts in obtaining a homeowners insurance policy with UPC Insurance Company for the property located at [address], by falsely providing the incorrect roof age, incorrect occupancy type and number of months the risk is occupied or rented. In addition, there is existing damage to premises which was not disclosed on application.” A week later UPCIC refunded plaintiffs the $1,366.35 they had paid in premiums up to that point by direct deposit into their bank account.
In the course of discovery plaintiffs sought production of communications between retained outside counsel and UPCIC from when counsel was retained on November 17, 2020 through the date of UPCIC’s January 19, 2021 declination. When UPCIC refused to disclose those communications, plaintiffs’ counsel wrote to the court on December 15, 2021 to request a conference, claiming
Defendant has asserted the frivolous position that virtually its entire claim file, underwriting guidelines and communications with attorneys and non-attorneys pre-dating its declination decision, are protected from disclosure under the attorney-client and work product privileges. The parties have met and conferred in good faith on multiple occasions but have reached an impasse.
This decision is the result of that conference.
In opposing plaintiffs’ demand for production of outside counsel communications in this case, UPCIC argued that these communications were protected by attorney-client privilege because
they relate to the retention of outside counsel for legal advice relating to the investigation and potential rescission of a claim. This is fundamentally different than advice relating to the processing of a claim, or the denial of a claim, in the ordinary course of business. UPC is in the business of processing claims, but is not in the business of rescinded policies.
Aside from the fact that claims aren’t rescinded (policies are), the judge rejected UPCIC’s attempted “fine line” distinction, and ordered UPCIC to produce all responsive communications with outside counsel between November 17, 2020 and January 19, 2021:
“New York law governs the applicability of the attorney-client privilege in this diversity case.” Roc Nation LLC v. HCC Int’l Ins. Co., PLC, No. 19 Civ. 554, 2020 WL 1970697, at *2 (Apr. 24, 2020). “[U]nder New York law, an insurance company’s claim handling activities are generally subject to discovery even if they were performed by an attorney. Id. This rule is grounded in an obvious principle: “The payment or rejection of claims is part of the regular business of an insurance company.” Advanced Chimney, Inc. v. Graziano, 153 A.D.3d 478, 480, 60 N.Y.S.3d 210 (2d Dep’t 2017). Thus, “[t]he key question is whether the attorney is predominantly investigating an insurance claim or providing legal advice.” Roc Nation, 2020 WL 1970697, at *2 (quotation marks and citations omitted). This approach extends to evaluations of assertions of attorney-client privilege in the context of an insurance company’s decision to rescind a policy based upon alleged material misrepresentations made by the insured in the procurement of the policy. See Advanced Chimney, 153 A.D.3d at 479-80.Here, defendant attempts to draw a fine line between its handling of plaintiffs’ claim and its evaluation of the rescission option. In the first place, defendant’s proposition that it is “not in the business of rescinded policies” defies logic. Defendant is in the business of providing insurance coverage; it assesses risk (and determines whether or not to provide insurance) based (at least in part) on a potential insured’s application. That is precisely why policy rescissions are often based upon misrepresentations or false statements in insurance applications. Defendant’s point — that it makes no money from rescinded policies — is facially true, but ignores situations (like the one at bar) where defendant rescinds a policy and avoids paying a substantial claim. In any event, in this case, defendant’s decision to rescind plaintiffs’ policy was inexorably intertwined with its denial of plaintiffs’ claim. In other words, any advice from outside counsel related to rescission of plaintiffs’ policy cannot be parsed from defendant’s denial of plaintiffs’ claim. Thus, defendant’s communications with outside counsel were not predominantly of a legal nature and, therefore, are not protected by attorney-client privilege.
I’m not fond of UPCIC’s argument that there’s an important difference between claim investigations and potential policy rescission investigations. The better argument IMO would have been on the nature of each of outside counsel’s communications.
Nevertheless, this decision is another reminder to insurers in New York that not all communications with their outside counsel made prior to a declination of coverage are protected from discovery by attorney-client privilege. If your outside counsel is not aware of this, PLEASE pass this post along to them.
Bottom line: each of outside counsel’s pre-declination communications with insurers should be one of only two, distinct kinds:
- routine communications (requesting file materials, scheduling, etc.);
- communications rendering legal advice that are –key words/concept — predominantly of a legal nature.
Not a blend of both. One or the other. Keeping the communications separate will support the more forceful and likely convincing argument that outside counsel communications which render only legal advice (are predominantly of a legal nature), even if made prior to the insurer-client’s coverage declination, are protected from discovery by the doctrine of attorney-client privilege.