California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones' Holds Investigatory Hearing on Life Insurer Claims Payments of Death Benefits

By Robert W. Hogeboom and Alexandra E. Ciganer

On May 23, 2011, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones along with State Controller John Chiang held an investigatory hearing on the claims practices of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) regarding the payment of death benefits under life insurance policies and annuities. Joining the Commissioner and State Controller were regulatory officials from the Florida and Minnesota Departments of Insurance who are also investigating death benefits claims practices.

 

MetLife was called to the hearing pursuant to the California Department of Insurance’s (“CDI”) investigatory subpoena to appear and provide documents to determine whether the insurer’s practices and procedures relating to its use of its death master file data and related information violates various sections of the Insurance Code.

 

The Commissioner’s opening statement reflects his concern that a number of life insurers are using death information to “boost their finances by stopping annuity payments, but not using the same information to pay policyholders the beneficiary payments they are due.” 

 

The CDI announced that it is commencing market conduct exams on the ten largest life insurers to investigate these practices. Adam Cole, CDI General Counsel, along with Insurance Commissioner Jones, gave opening statements and conducted the bulk of the questioning of MetLife officials. Mr. Cole indicated that the CDI is reviewing the death claims practices to determine if violations exist under California Insurance Code subsections 790.03(h)(3) and (5). Subsection (3) refers to failing to adopt reasonable standards for the prompt investigation and processing of claims. Subsection (5) refers to not attempting in good faith to effect prompt, fair and equitable settlements of claims. Other sections of the California Insurance Code were also cited.

 

In assessing whether claims settlement practices violated these statutes, Commissioner Jones dedicated a significant portion of the inquiry to MetLife’s use of the U.S. Social Security Administration death master file in identifying deceased insureds. Much of the time was spent questioning the application of the death master file to different insurance products, including group annuity, group life and individual life products, frequency of the death master file sweeps, and what constitutes a match in the death master file.

 

Commissioner Jones raised his concern with the varying frequency of death master file sweeps to the different products. He probed into the reasons for conducting a death master file sweep of individual life insurance products annually versus monthly or quarterly for other products. The regulators also dedicated significant attention to MetLife’s use and characterization of the death master file as a “safety net” procedure in identifying the deceased individual life insurance insured. Commissioner Jones’ view appears to be that the use of the death master file as a safety net is not sufficient and should be used as “an integral part of the normal process.” 

 

While the investigatory hearing was characterized by the CDI as a public hearing to investigate company actions, policies and practices, in actuality it was a disciplinary investigatory hearing to determine specific violations, which is tantamount to a deposition. As such, it was not being used as a public forum to exchange information which could ultimately lead to best practices legislation with respect to payment of death benefits, but to provide traction for the CDI to institute disciplinary proceedings against members of the life insurance industry.

 

A copy of the Commissioner’s Press Release on the hearing and his plans to conduct market conduct examinations is found here.

 

For more information, please contact Robert Hogeboom at (213) 614-7304, or rhogeboom@bargerwolen.com.

 

California Seeking Suitability Requirements Again

The California Department of Insurance (“CDI”) published, on March 11, 2011, proposed regulations containing suitability requirements to govern the sale of annuities (see Insurance Commissioner Jones' press release). This represents an attempt by the CDI to accomplish by regulation what it failed to accomplish several times by statute in the past decade.

The proposed regulations are based on the NAIC Suitability in Annuity Transactions Model Regulations, as revised by the NAIC in 2010, but include some revisions.

It is important to note that for many years the CDI has held the position that the prior versions of the NAIC Suitability Model did not go far enough in protecting consumers. The CDI supported unsuccessful legislation in California at least three times in the mid-2000s that sought to impose suitability requirements that were more onerous than the then current NAIC Suitability Model.

Thus, while most states have adopted laws that follow the NAIC Suitability Model, California currently lacks laws that provide specific suitability requirements that pertain to the sale of annuities.

Given the lack of express suitability requirements, the CDI has sought to regulate suitability in connection with the sale of annuities using other tools such as:

  1. general legal concepts of principal-agent responsibility;
  2. requirements relating to replacements; and,
  3. California Insurance Code Section 785(a)’s imposition of a duty of good faith and fair dealing in connection with the sale on an insurance product to a senior.

The regulations proposed by the CDI include a provision that would make them applicable only to sales of annuities to purchasers aged 65 and older. This is in contrast to the NAIC Suitability Model which applies to all sales of annuities.

Another important distinction between the CDI’s proposed regulations and the NAIC Suitability Model is that the CDI proposal does not include the “FINRA Safe Harbor” provisions which were some of the primary revisions made by the NAIC to the Suitability Model last year. A public hearing will be held on the CDI’s proposed regulations on April 25, 2011. 

It is interesting to note that the The National Conference of Insurance Legislators recently endorsed the NAIC Suitability Model. Also, the Senate Insurance Committee of the California Legislature introduced legislation, SB 715, on February 18, 2011, that seeks to codify the NAIC Suitability Model. SB 715’s draft language is the same as the NAIC Suitability Model that was revised by the NAIC last year. 

It is not clear at this point in time why the CDI has proposed the NAIC Suitability Model in the form of regulations when the Model is pending as a proposed statute. One thought is that the CDI is hedging its bets. One problem that the CDI may have is that it is unclear whether there is sufficient statutory authority for the CDI to promulgate the NAIC Suitability Model as a regulation.

California Supreme Court Holds Treble Damages Not Permitted under the Unfair Competition Law - Restitution is the Sole Monetary Remedy

Earlier today, the California Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion concluding that Civil Code section 3345, which allows treble damages to be awarded to seniors when a statute provides for a fine or penalty, is not permitted under the Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 (the “UCL”)

The decision, Clark v. Superior Court (National Western Life Insurance Company), confirms that the only monetary remedy available under the UCL is restitution, and that a claim for treble damages is not restitution, nor is the nature of restitution comparable to a penalty.

The plaintiffs in the case filed a class action lawsuit against National Western Life Insurance Company arising out of the sale of deferred annuities issued to California residents who were senior citizens. The trial court denied certification as to all claims except one under the UCL. In addition to seeking restitution in the UCL claim, the plaintiffs sought treble damages on their restitution claim under section 3345.

As reported in our earlier blog post last September when the Supreme Court accepted review, in the more than two decades since the enactment of section 3345, no case had ever permitted any sort of damages, be they compensatory, treble or punitive, under the UCL. The trial court dismissed the claim for treble damages, but the Court of Appeal reversed, finding that the plain meaning of section 3345 applied to a private action seeking restitution under the UCL.

In reversing the decision issued by the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court focused on two issues. First, the Court considered whether a claim under section 3345 only applies to treble amounts awarded under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), since the first subsection of section 3345 makes reference to and cites language from the CLRA. The Court concluded that a claim under section 3345 is not so limited, observing that, if trebling was to apply only to a claim under the CLRA, there would have been no need for a separate statute (section 3345); the Legislature could have just amended the CLRA. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court did not articulate any other statutes that might be able to be trebled under section 3345.

After this, the Supreme Court specifically addressed whether section 3345 trebling was permitted under the UCL. The Court focused on the salient language of section 3345 where it requires the underlying statute to impose a “fine, or a civil penalty . . . or any other remedy the purpose of which is to punish or deter,” and found that it cannot refer to the UCL. First, citing to a number of its past decisions, the Court reiterated that the only monetary remedy under the UCL is restitution. 

Next, the Court relied on the well-established canon of statutory construction that when there is a general term followed by various specific terms, as is the case in the language of section 3345 just quoted, the general term must be limited to the nature of the specific terms. In other words, “any other remedy” must refer to a remedy in the nature of a penalty, and thus section 3345 trebling is only allowed when a statute permits a remedy that is in the nature of a penalty. The UCL, however, is not such a statute. Confirming that restitution only allows the restoration of something taken, or a return to the status quo, restitution under the UCL is not a penalty, which is a recovery without reference to the actual damage sustained. In sum, the Supreme Court concluded:

Because restitution in a private action brought under the unfair competition law is measured by what was taken from the plaintiff, that remedy is not a penalty and hence does not fall within the trebled recovery provision of Civil Code section 3345, subdivision (b).

Kent Keller and Larry Golub of Barger & Wolen represent National Western Life Insurance Company in the Clark case.

Federal Court Denies Class Certification Motion Involving Deferred Annuities

The United States District Court for the Southern District of California denied certification to a purported class of purchasers of deferred annuities. In a decision issued earlier today by United States District Judge Janis Sammartino in In re National Western Life Insurance Deferred Annuities Litigation, Case No. 05-CV-1018-JLS (JSP), the court denied certification as to a nationwide class alleging RICO violations and a California state class alleging multiple statutory violations, including claims under the Unfair Competition Law (California Business & Professions Code sections 17200 et seq.).

Plaintiffs claimed that National Western “orchestrated a nationwide scheme to target senior citizens and lure them into purchasing its high cost and illiquid deferred annuities,” basing their claim on three alleged misrepresentations and/or omissions – the failure to disclose the high commissions paid to agents, the presence of an illusory bonus on premiums paid, and the use of an increasing asset fee, each of which impacted the interest credited on the annuities. Focusing solely on the commonality and typicality requirements to establish a viable class, the court found that such requirements were lacking. For example, the court emphasized that none of the class representatives possessed an annuity with an asset fee that was increased. Moreover, the court found plaintiffs had not met their burden in demonstrating that all of National Western’s more than twenty annuity products contained the alleged same misrepresentations and omitted the same information.  While the court did observe that National Western used standardized forms, they were not identical, and the evidence presented by plaintiffs failed to support their contention that those materials contained the same alleged misrepresentations and omissions.

The court denied the motion for class certification without prejudice and also explained that its ruling did not address any of the numerous other arguments advanced by the parties.

Larry Golub and Kent Keller of Barger & Wolen were co-counsel for National Western Life Insurance Company.

Ninth Circuit Overrules Denial of Class Certification Ruling in Annuity Litigation, Adopting a De Novo Standard of Review

On August 28, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that found the Hawaii District Court had erred in denying class certification in a case involving the sale of annuities to senior citizens. While expressing no opinion as to the merits of the case, the Court of Appeals concluded that the class in Yokoyama v. Midland National Life Insurance Company should have been certified.

According to the Ninth Circuit, the plaintiffs in Yokoyama limited their claim to one that specifically targeted the misrepresentations made by Midland National in its brochures that promoted the annuities as appropriate for seniors. (No actual brochure language is quoted in the case.) Significantly, the claim was alleged solely under the Hawaii Deceptive Practices Act (“DPA”), which appears to be similar to a claim under the Unfair Competition Law in California. 

The District Court’s opinion issued in 2007 found that each plaintiff would have to show subjective, individualized reliance on deceptive practices related to each plaintiff’s purchase of an annuity, and thus class certification was denied. In contrast, the Ninth Circuit found that the District Court had erred in denying class certification, based on the fact that “this action has been narrowly tailored to rely only on Hawaii law,” that the DPA only requires an objective test to determine reliance, and that the plaintiffs were not basing their claim on the individual solicitations by agents.

The Ninth Circuit concluded: “Accordingly, there is no reason to look at the circumstances of each individual purchase in this case, because the allegations of the complaint are narrowly focused on allegedly deceptive provisions of Midland’s own marketing brochures, and the fact-finder need only determine whether those brochures were capable of misleading a reasonable consumer.” 

In addition, the Ninth Circuit opinion also rejected Midland National’s argument (and the District Court’s holding) that the potential existence of individualized damage assessments made the action unsuitable for class treatment. The Court of Appeals explained that “[in] this circuit, however, damage calculations alone cannot defeat certification.”

Much of the Yokohama decision is focused on the standard of review for a district court’s ruling as to certification, with the Ninth Circuit announcing that the standard of review is de novo, rather than the accepted abuse of discretion standard typically used in reviewing class certification rulings on appeal, at least in situations where the underlying issue is purely one of law.  On this point, however, there was a split among the three-judge panel. 

The third judge on the panel forcefully rejected this de novo standard and observed that it is “an assault on Ninth Circuit precedent.” The Judge concluded his separate opinion by advising that it “is an en banc panel who should make this determination to depart from longstanding Circuit precedent, not two judges who would make the standard of review less deferential.” The third Judge nevertheless concurred in the Court’s ultimate conclusion that the denial of class certification was to be reversed even under the de novo standard. Whether Midland National will seek en banc review in the case is presently unknown.

Ultimately, the Yokoyama opinion sanctions that, if plaintiff’s counsel in a case can craft the claims asserted against the defendant in a narrow manner so as to avoid individual variance among the class members, then even in a situation where class certification would seem not to be appropriate due to the inherent individualized issues, certification may nevertheless be permitted on that narrowed claim.