The Biden administration has hit the ground running with executive orders, regulatory and legislative priorities, and cabinet-level and other top posts being announced on a daily basis. Our public policy colleagues have been closely tracking many of the policy priorities of the new administration and highlighting important regulatory and legislative developments that businesses can expect coming down the pipeline.
If 2020 was the year of the pandemic, 2021 appears to be shaping up to be the year of “returning to normal.” So far, most coverage disputes related to COVID-19 have been reactions to direct losses caused by the virus and related measures (i.e., relating to business interruption or event cancellation). In the upcoming months and years, however, many businesses will have to make proactive decisions on how to return to work. It is important for businesses to understand how those decisions may impact a variety of potential insurance coverages, including possible D&O coverage, as this post will discuss. Additionally, now that insurance companies have a better understanding of the types of risks involved with COVID-19, coverage terms and exclusions in policies issued after the pandemic may become drastically different.
Late in June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Liu v. SEC, a closely watched case in which the Court in an 8-1 opinion curtailed the authority of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to seek disgorgement of profits from private parties in judicial enforcement proceedings. The Court articulated restrictions on the SEC’s disgorgement power, including (1) limiting disgorgement amounts to the net profits from wrongdoing, (2) limiting the SEC’s ability to seek disgorgement of profits on a joint and several basis, and (3) directing the SEC to return disgorged monies to aggrieved investors rather than depositing them in the U.S. Treasury. Although it does not address insurance issues directly, the Court’s analysis of the disgorgement remedy is bound to revive discussion of the issue of insurability of losses suffered as a result of settlements or judgments characterized as disgorgement.
Times of crisis can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, times like this can also be an opportunity for exploitation of inexpensive, and potentially forced, labor. As America reopens its economy, it is likely that we will begin to see a surge in many industries. The resulting demand for labor, coupled with unprecedented unemployment and related desperation not only in America, but worldwide, could lead unscrupulous individuals and companies to exploit American and foreign workers. We saw this with previous disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, where foreign laborers were exploited in the rebuilding process with false promises of citizenship. Now, to be clear, exploitation occurs even during times of economic prosperity; however, it can be even more pronounced and egregious when people must deal with uncertainties and hardships never before experienced in their lifetimes.
In an important decision in the world of professional liability (including D&O and E&O policies), the Seventh Circuit recently held that a “contractual liability” exclusion—i.e., an exclusion for claims “based upon or arising out of … breach of contract”—when inserted in a professional liability policy, that is, a policy intended to insure professionals for services they perform under contract, renders the coverage “illusory.” Accordingly, the appeals court held that the policy must be “reformed” to meet the policyholder’s “reasonable expectations” that coverage would be afforded for claims by clients for errors and omissions in the performance of professional services under contract, and remanded the case to the district court to apply those reasonable expectations in the pending dispute. (See Crum & Forster Specialty Insur. Co. v. DVO, Inc., No. 18-2571 (7th Cir., Sept. 23, 2019), opinion here.)
In a prior post, we reported an important ruling of first impression by the Delaware Superior Court that a shareholder appraisal action against Pillsbury’s client Solera Holdings Inc. was a “Securities Claim” under Solera’s directors and officers liability insurance policies. In the same decision, the court ruled on two additional issues that no Delaware court had previously decided and that highlight the importance of understanding the specific terms of your company’s D&O policies.
When a company receives a claim or lawsuit, it is critical to provide timely notice to its insurers. But when the claim is first made, sufficient facts may not yet be known to indicate which policy will respond. Many policies also contain language that purports to shift coverage to earlier insurance policies for claims that “relate back” to earlier events. As a best practice, policyholders and their brokers often provide notice of a claim under all policies that might cover a loss, to ensure that coverage is not defeated by failure to meet any obligation to give notice. This method of first providing notice for claims to multiple insurers, and then working with insurers to determine the correct policy to respond, is a well-established practice for managing insurance claims. Once the proper policy to respond to the claim is established, exclusions in the other policies kick in to avoid double coverage.
Pillsbury secured an important victory for its client, Solera Holdings Inc., when Delaware Superior Court Judge Abigail LeGrow held—in a matter of first impression anywhere in the country—that a shareholder appraisal action challenging the price Solera obtained for its shares when it sold itself to private equity firm Vista Equity Partners was a “Securities Claim” within the meaning of Solera’s directors and officers liability insurance policies. Last month’s groundbreaking decision in Solera Holdings, Inc. v. XL Specialty Ins. Co., may be found here.
Although it has become common for corporate directors and officers to face claims seeking to hold them personally liable for alleged damages resulting from actions taken in their official capacity, it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when such lawsuits were so rare that corporations were not even allowed to indemnify their directors and officers. But with the emergence and rapid growth of lawsuits against officers and directors—often fueled by a cottage industry of class action plaintiffs’ firms—corporate indemnification and Directors & Officers (D&O) liability insurance programs have become integral to a company’s ability to attract and retain strong management.