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Ninth Circuit Revives Arizona Insured’s Attempt to Collect Stipulated Judgment From Insurer

Ninth Circuit Revives Arizona Insured’s Attempt to Collect Stipulated Judgment From Insurer

Labertew v. Langemeier, 846 F.3d 1028 (9th Cir. 2017)

The Ninth Circuit overruled the Arizona District Court’s dismissal of a garnishment filed by a Plaintiff/Assignee against an Insurer to collect a $1.5 million stipulated judgment entered against an Insurer pursuant to a “Damron Agreement.”

Under a Damron Agreement, if an insurer refuses to defend an insured, then an insured may stipulate to a judgment against it in exchange for an assignment of the insured’s rights against the insurer and plaintiff’s covenant not to execute the stipulated judgment against the insured personally. An insurer’s only defenses to a Damron Agreement are: (1) coverage, and (2) fraud and collusion. Plaintiffs/assignees often attempt to collect stipulated judgments from insurers by subsequently filing a declaratory judgment action.

In Labertew, the Plaintiff/Assignee filed a garnishment, a procedural device commonly used by judgment creditors to garnish wages from judgment debtors’ employers and banks. The Insurer removed the garnishment to District Court, filed an Answer indicating it owed nothing to Plaintiff (presumably because the Insurer contested coverage), and the Plaintiff/Assignee failed to file an Objection to the Answer within 10 days as required by Arizona law. Consequently, the District Court ruled the garnishment failed and discharged the Insurer/Garnishee.

The Ninth Circuit revived the garnishment for one primary reason. Federal Rule 69, which regards execution of “money judgments” and generally incorporates state procedure, applies only to judgments issued by the particular district court in which the execution is sought. The judgment in Labertew, however, was against the Insured/Assignor in state court rather than against the Insurer in federal court.

In other words, “[o]nce [the garnishment] arrived in federal court, the case was not yet ripe for application of [Federal Rule] 69, which would in general have imported Arizona procedures, because there was neither a judgment of the federal court upon which Rule 69 could operate, nor a judgment against the [Insurer] that might arguably be registered with the federal court and enforced under Rule 69. Consequently, the failure to answer the [Insurer’s] objection did not operate, through Rule 69, to discharge the insurers under Arizona procedural law.”

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit reversed, vacated the judgment discharging the Insurer, and remanded the case to District Court.

What are the primary takeaways for an Insurer defending a Damron Agreement in Arizona?

  • An insured’s attempt to collect a stipulated judgment entered pursuant to a Damron Agreement in a subsequent garnishment—rather than a subsequent declaratory judgment action—poses a procedural pitfall for practitioners unfamiliar with garnishment.
  • After a plaintiff/assignee obtains a stipulated judgment under a Damron Agreement, an Insurer should be prepared, if the plaintiff/assignee files a garnishment, to immediately file an answer indicating it owes the insured/assignor nothing. This will allow the 10-day deadline for the assignee/plaintiff to file an objection to expire before the 30-day removal deadline expires.
  • If the plaintiff/assignee fails to file an objection, then the insurer should remain in state court and seek to have the garnishment dismissed and discharged.
  • If the plaintiff/assignee files a timely objection, then the insurer can still remove to District Court and litigate substantive defenses to the Damron Agreement.
Arizona District Court Strikes Most of Plaintiff’s Expert Opinion in Insurance Bad Faith Case

Arizona District Court Strikes Most of Plaintiff’s Expert Opinion in Insurance Bad Faith Case

City of Phoenix v. First State Ins Co., 2016 WL 4592906 (D. Ariz. Sept. 2, 2016)

(Order), a coverage and bad faith case arising from an Insurer denying an Insured, the City of Phoenix, defense and indemnity from a personal injury claim resulting from asbestos exposure, the Arizona District Court held that the opinion of the Insured’s bad faith expert “will be excluded to the extent that it asserts legal principles, reaches legal conclusion, or asserts facts contrary to or unsupported by the record.”

The Insured’s expert was a law professor who had published books and articles on insurance law. Nonetheless, the Arizona District Court stated his “report extends far beyond the range of admissible expert opinions” because it “consists largely of legal opinions,” including opinions regarding “interpretations of the language in [the Insurer’s] policies,” “assertions of Arizona insurance law,” and “applications of Arizona law to the facts of this case.”

The Arizona District Court held that such a bad faith expert opinion is inadmissible for two primary reasons:

  1. it invades “the province of the court by expounding on law,” and
  2. it invades “the province of the jury by resolving facts.”

First, “instructing the jury on the applicable law is the exclusive province of the court.” Consequently, an expert “cannot give an opinion as to her legal conclusion, i.e., an opinion on an ultimate issue of law.”

Second, “Federal Rule of Evidence 702 permits an expert to testify only if the testimony ‘will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.’” The Insured’s expert testimony did not help the jury understand the evidence because some of his “opinions [were] incorrect under Arizona law” and not supported by the evidence. Furthermore, the Insured’s expert testimony did not help the jury “determine a fact in issue”; rather, the Insured’s expert attempted to determine fact issues for the jury.

The Arizona District Court also reasoned that the subject Insured’s expert testimony was dissimilar to expert testimony admitted in Hangarter v. Provident Life & Accident Insurance Co., 373 F.3d 998, 1016–17 (9th Cir. 2004). In Hangarter,the expert “merely made passing ‘references’ to legal provisions and never actually ‘reached a legal conclusion.’” Indeed, in Hangarter,the insured’s expert testimony that the Insurer “deviated from industry standards supported a finding of bad faith,” but the expert “never testified that…[the insurer] actually acted in bad faith (i.e. an ultimate issued of law).” Hangarter,373 F.3d at 1016 (parentheses in original). In City of Phoenix v. First State Ins. Co., however, the Insured’s expert did “not just ‘refer’ to legal provisions; he spent pages detailing insurance law, complete with case citations” and offered “to testify that [the Insurer:] [a] breached the terms of its policies, [b] acted in bad faith, and [c] deserves punitive damages.” The Arizona District Court reiterated that “None of that is admissible.”

Ultimately, the Arizona District Court granted, in part, the Insurer’s Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony and granted the Insurer’s Motion for Summary Judgment on both coverage and bad faith.

What are the primary takeaways from the City of Phoenix v. First State Ins. Co for insurer’s defending bad faith claims in Arizona District Court?

First, an Insurer should be vigilant that its own claims handling expert does not extend beyond the range of permissible expert opinions by stating the applicable law, resolving fact issues, and rendering an opinion on the ultimate issue—whether the Insurer acted in bad faith.

Second, an Insurer in Federal Court should likewise move to strike the opinions of an Insured’s claims handling expert that makes similar transgressions.

Arizona Bad Faith Insurance Update

Arizona Bad Faith Insurance Update

In?Romero v. Mendota Ins. Co., 2016 WL 6775950 (D. Ariz. Nov. 16, 2016), the Arizona District Court granted a Motion to Remand a breach of contract and insurance bad faith case arising from UIM claims-despite the Insureds certifying the case was worth more than the $50,000 compulsory arbitration limit and seeking punitive damages-because the Insurer did not prove the amount in controversy “more likely than not” exceeded $75,000.

In granting the Motion to Remand, the District Court relied on these principles:

  • “Courts strictly construe the [removal] statute against removal jurisdiction.”?Romero, 2016 WL 6775950, at?[1]?
  • “There is a strong presumption against removal and federal jurisdiction must be rejected if there is any doubt as to the right of removal in the first instance.”?Id. (internal cites omitted)
  • The Insurer “always has the burden of establishing that removal is proper.”?Id.
  • “Where doubt regarding the right to removal exists, a case should be remanded to state court.”?Id.
  • “Where a complaint does not demand a specific dollar amount, the defendant bears the burden of establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.”?Id. (internal cited omitted).
  • ?An Insurer must “present specific facts in support of jurisdiction rather than relying on conclusory allegations.”?Id. at?[2]
  • An Insurer is “not confined by the face of the complaint”; rather, the Insurer “may submit facts presented in the removal petition as well as any summary judgment-type evidence relevant to the amount in controversy at the time of the removal,” such as a settlement letter.?Id. at?[2].

In?Romero, the District Court remanded because the complaint alleged no specific amount of damages, the Motion to Remand alleged both Insureds incurred less than $8,000 in medical expenses, and-despite the combined policy limits of $50,000, the Insureds’ certification that the claim was worth more than $50,0000, and the claim for punitive damages-the Insurer failed to allege sufficient specific facts and simply made the conclusory allegation that it was a “reasonable inference” that the amount in controversy exceeded $75,000.?Id.

The District Court remanded the case “because doubt regarding the right to removal exists.”?Id. The District Court did not mention whether the complaint sought attorney fees and did not address the line of Arizona District Court and Ninth Circuit cases that indicates a potential award of attorney fees to Insureds should be considered in determining whether the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.

About the Author:?Nathan D. Meyer?is a Partner at the?Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. One of his specialties is insurance coverage and bad faith.?Micalann C. Pepe?is an attorney at Jaburg Wilk who focuses her practice on insurance law. Nate and Micalann advise and represent insurance clients in coverage, bad faith, contribution and liability matters.

[1]?Romero v. Mendota Ins. Co., 2016 WL 6775950 (D. Ariz. Nov. 16, 2016)

[2]?Manonev. Farm Bureau Prop. &Cas. Co., 2016 WL 1059539, at (D. Ariz. Mar. 17, 2016) (amount in controversy may attorney fees and costs);
[2]?Wood v. State FarmMut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2015 WL 3953909, at (D. Ariz. June 29, 2015) (if recoverable, amount in controversy includes reasonable attorney fees);
Haskell v. State FarmMut. Auto.Ins. Co., 69 F.?App’x?877, 878 (9th Cir. 2003) (same);
Nasiriv. AllstateIndem.Co.,?41?Fed.Appx. 76 (9th Cir. 2002) (court may consider reasonable estimate of attorney fees when determining amount in controversy in bad faith case);
Galt v. JSS Scandinavia, 142 F.3d 1150, 1156 (9th Cir.1998) (if recoverable, court may consider reasonable estimate of attorney fees).

Offers of Judgment in Arizona Bad Faith Cases

Offers of Judgment in Arizona Bad Faith Cases

In?Stafford v. Burns, — P.3d —, 2017 WL 164310 (Ariz.App.?January 17, 2017), a?medical malpractice?and wrongful death case arising from emergency medical care rendered after a methadone overdose, the Arizona?Court of Appeals ?decline[d] to impose a requirement that Offers of Judgment be deemed reasonable before sanctions are imposed under Rule 68(g).?

Rule 68

In Arizona, Rule 68 requires mandatory shifting of post-offer expert fees and double taxable costs if an Insurer, or any defendant, subsequently?beats the Offer of Judgment?at trial.? Rule 68 states, ?If the offeree rejects an offer and does not later obtain a more favorable judgment?the offeree must pay, as a sanction, reasonable expert witness fees and double the taxable costs?incurred by the offeror after making the offer???ARCP 68(g).

Good Faith Requirement in Offers of Judgment

In?Stafford,the Court of Appeals rejected a ?good faith? requirement in Offers of Judgment for two primary reasons.

First, ?Arizona courts have uniformly held, consistent with the rule?s plain language, that sanctions imposed by Rule 68(g) are both mandatory and punitive.?

Second, adding a??good faith? requirement?would undermine rather than serve the purpose of Offers of Judgment??to promote settlement and avoid protracted unnecessary litigation.?? The Court of Appeals reasoned that a ?reasonableness requirement would only?increase?the cost of litigation by inviting the expenditure of time to resolve an offer?s validity [i.e. reasonableness and/or good faith], driving the parties? settlement positions further apart.? (emphasis?in original).

What is the primary takeaway for insurers in Arizona bad faith cases?? Arizona continues to enforce Offers of Judgment that encourage settlement and?Stafford?makes it more likely that Arizona will enforce a ?Conditioned Offer of Judgment,? i.e. an Offer of Judgment conditioned on no entry of judgment, execution of a Settlement Agreement, and?filing a Stipulation?to Dismiss.?See?How Insurers Can Shift the Risks of Attorney Fees, Expert Fees, and Costs in?Arizona Bad Faith Cases.?

About the Author:?Nathan D. Meyer?is a Partner at the?Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. One of his specialties is insurance coverage and bad faith. Nate advises and represents insurance clients in coverage, bad faith, contribution and liability matters.