By Jason Chorley, Sedgwick San Francisco
On August 10, 2015, the California Supreme Court held that where an insurer (1) declines to defend its insured, (2) is compelled by court order to permit the insured to be represented by Cumis counsel, (3) is ordered to pay reasonable and necessary defense expenses while reserving the right to recover payments for unreasonable and unnecessary expenses, and (4) alleges that Cumis counsel charged fees that were excessive, unreasonable, and unnecessary, the insurer may seek reimbursement directly from Cumis counsel:
If Cumis counsel, operating under a court order that expressly provided that the insurer would be able to recover payments of excessive fees, sought and received from the insurer payment for time and costs that were fraudulent, or were otherwise manifestly and objectively useless and wasteful when incurred, Cumis counsel have been unjustly enriched at the insurer’s expense. Cumis counsel provide no convincing reason why they should be absolutely immune from liability for enriching themselves in this fashion. Alternatively, Cumis counsel fail to persuade that any financial responsibility for their excessive billing should fall first on their own clients — insureds who paid to receive a defense of potentially covered claims, not to face additional rounds of litigation and possible monetary exposure for the acts of their lawyers.
Hartford Casualty Insurance Company issued one commercial general liability insurance policy to Noble Locks Enterprises, Inc. and a second policy to J.R. Marketing, LLC. In September 2005, a lawsuit was filed against Noble Locks and J.R. Marketing and several of their employees in Marin County, California. Later actions were filed against the same parties in Nevada and Virginia.
The Marin County action was tendered to Hartford, which disclaimed a duty to defend. The insureds, represented by Squire Sanders, immediately commenced a coverage action against Hartford. Hartford subsequently agreed to defend its insureds subject to a reservation of rights, but declined to provide independent counsel. The court in the coverage action ordered on summary judgment that Hartford had a duty to defend the Marin County action as of the date of tender and must pay for Cumis counsel for its insureds. The insureds retained Squire Sanders as their Cumis counsel as well. The court in the coverage action also entered an enforcement order, prepared by Squire Sanders, ordering Hartford to pay all past and future defense invoices, declaring that Squire Sanders’ invoices still needed to be reasonable and necessary, and that if Hartford wanted to challenge fees, it may do so through a reimbursement action after the Marin County action concluded, and that, as a breaching insurer, Hartford forfeited the benefit of Civil Code section 2860’s limitations on rates.
After the Marin County action concluded, Hartford filed a cross-complaint against Squire Sanders and various persons for whom it paid defense expenses in the Marin County action. Hartford sought to recover a significant portion of the $15 million in defense fees, including some $13.5 million paid to Squire Sanders, for services rendered to non-insureds, rendered prior to the tender of the Marin County action, for any services in the Nevada or Virginia actions, and for “abusive, excessive, unreasonable, or unnecessary” fees. The trial court in the coverage action sustained the cross-defendants’ demurrer to the reimbursement and rescission causes of action in Hartford’s first amended cross-complaint. The trial court held that Hartford’s right of reimbursement was from its insureds, not directly from Cumis counsel. Hartford appealed.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court decision concluding that allowing Hartford to seek reimbursement directly from Cumis counsel would frustrate the policies underlying Civil Code section 2860. The Court of Appeal further held that, where an insurer breaches its duty to defend and loses all right to control the defense, it is likewise barred from maintaining a reimbursement action against independent counsel where it considers those fees unreasonable or unnecessary. Hartford appealed.
California Supreme Court Discussion
In a majority opinion of Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, and Justices Werdegar, Chin, Corrigan, and Kruger, the California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal decision insofar as the dismissal of Squire Sanders was upheld.
The Supreme Court noted the distinction between its finding of a right of restitution against the insured in Buss with its finding in the present case. In Buss, the Supreme Court held that, where an insurer defends a mixed action, it is entitled to reimbursement for those fees and costs attributable solely to defending claims not covered by the policy because the insured would be unjustly enriched at the insurer’s expense – the assumption being that those non-covered fees and expenses were still reasonable and necessary to the insured’s defense against those non-covered claims. Here, however, the question presented is whether independent counsel is unjustly enriched if its fees were excessive, unreasonable and unnecessary for the insureds’ defense to any claim, and not incurred for the benefit of the insured. The Supreme Court found in the affirmative, but limited to the facts of this case.
The Supreme Court rejected the argument that Squire Sanders was merely an incidental beneficiary of Hartford’s promise to pay the costs of defending potentially covered third party claims against its insureds. The Supreme Court reasoned that Hartford’s defense obligation was not unlimited, but rather restricted to reasonable and necessary defense expenses, not Squire Sanders’ alleged overcharges: “Hartford did not accept a bargain binding it to absorb whatever defense fees and expenses the insureds’ independent counsel might choose to bill, no matter how excessive.”
The Supreme Court also rejected Squire Sanders’ argument that Cumis counsel’s independence, zeal, and undivided loyalty to its client would be compromised if it had to defend an insurer’s lawsuit challenging the reasonableness of its efforts in hindsight. The Supreme Court reasoned that attorneys in numerous settings know they will later have to justify their fees to a third party, and in fact, Civil Code section 2860 addresses the possibility of Cumis fee disputes potentially involving Cumis counsel itself, not just the insured. There is no threat to Cumis counsel’s independence by allowing reimbursement under principles of restitution, rather than only permitting the procedures of Civil Code section 2860. The Supreme Court also rejected Squire Sanders’ argument that 2860 provides for a contemporaneous resolution of fee disputes, reasoning that while 2860 does not foreclose contemporaneous resolution, it also does not require it. Further, the trial court’s order specifically provided that Hartford could seek reimbursement after the Marin County case concluded.
Squire Sanders’ argument that the insureds have the sole responsibility and authority to monitor counsel’s expenditure was rejected by the Supreme Court as creating a circuitous, complex, and expensive procedure. The Supreme Court refused to hold that “any direct liability to Hartford for bill padding by Squire Sanders must fall solely on the insureds.” The Supreme Court also rejected Squire Sanders’ due process argument based on attorney-client privilege, finding that an objective review of the underlying case is unlikely to involve an examination of attorney-client communications, which could be redacted in any event.
The Supreme Court’s decision was guided by the trial court’s order, drafted by Squire Sanders, requiring Hartford to pay for independent counsel and permitting a reimbursement action after the Marin County action concluded. The Supreme Court did not decide whether Hartford as a breaching insurer can pursue anyone for reimbursement of fees because that issue was addressed in the trial court’s order and not before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court noted that Squire Sanders’ own conduct supports the ruling, as it drafted the initial order. The Supreme Court concluded that allowing Hartford to pursue a narrow claim for reimbursement against Squire Sanders under the terms of the 2006 enforcement order neither rewards an undeserving insurer nor penalizes unsuspecting Cumis counsel.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Liu observed that none of the parties appeared blameless, including Hartford’s insured, J.R. Marketing, which was not “a helpless bystander.” Because the majority opinion relies on dual assumptions that (1) Squire Sanders’ billings were objectively unreasonable and unnecessary and (2) were not incurred for the benefit of the insured, Justice Liu reasoned that the majority opinion leaves open the possibility that some portion of the Squire Sanders fees were incurred for the benefit of J.R. Marketing. On remand, Justice Liu posited that Hartford bears the burden to show that Squire Sanders’ fees were objectively unreasonable and were not for the benefit of J.R. Marketing. To the extent the fees were unreasonable, but incurred for the benefit of J.R. Marketing, Hartford’s reimbursement action should lie against J.R. Marketing. Justice Lui concluded that Hartford should have to overcome a presumption that the fees were incurred for the benefit of J.R. Marketing because J.R. Marketing controlled the defense.