DEI Claims in Higher Education: Why Control over the Claims Resolution Process Matters and What Universities Need to Know to Maximize Their Influence over the Outcome

Natasha Romagnoli and Anna K. Milunas

When more than just university dollars are at stake, understanding and maximizing control over the claims resolution process in advance is essential for higher education policyholders.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) have always been controversial topics at colleges and universities, but the last several years have seen DEI debates amplified to the greatest degree as more educational institutions take open and affirmative steps toward addressing discrimination and intolerance on campus.

At a time when issues of racial injustice and implicit bias are so much in the forefront of the national conscious, even nascent allegations of student or employee discrimination (or reverse discrimination) can subject institutions to instantaneous and major public relations (“PR”) crises that come at a great cost to a university’s reputation, which is paramount to its continued success.

Negative PR, however, is not the only thing schools must contend with in this new environment. Claims that universities and colleges have violated federal or state anti-discrimination laws, or failed to adhere to their own anti-discrimination or DEI policies, are now more than ever resulting in formal lawsuits, in addition to complaints filed with state anti-discrimination commissions and other similar oversight bodies.

Consider Smith College, for example, where a former employee plans to sue the school—in addition to filing a claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, for creating a “racially hostile workplace” after Smith mandated anti-bias training for its white employees in the aftermath of an alleged July 2018 racial profiling complaint by a student. Or a community college in San Diego, where five current and former Black employees are suing for a “palpable climate of anti-Blackness at Southwestern College.” DePaul University was sued twice in six months by Black professors for alleged discrimination in the form of “irregularities,” “increased scrutiny,” and “microaggressions” in the tenure track evaluation process that violated DePaul’s anti-discrimination policies. A former employee of Cal State University, Northridge also filed a lawsuit against the university for discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and failure to accommodate a disability. Further, in May 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani permitted a breach of contract and section 1981 claim by a former student disciplined by Harvard University for sexual assault to move forward against the university on grounds that the university racially discriminated against the student in its handling of a Title IX complaint.

These claims come at a significant cost to educational institutions—not only in terms of immediate crisis management response and defense costs—but in settlements, which are often expensive, multifaceted, and even at times, unconventional. The University of Iowa, for example, reportedly agreed to pay a former field hockey coach and her partner a total of $6.5 million to settle two discrimination lawsuits. New York University recently reached a settlement that reportedly involved an agreement to effectuate new anti-discrimination policies and training, in addition to maintaining records of discrimination complaints and the university’s response to them.

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What’s Next with D&O and COVID-19 Coverage?

Allison Zamani

The principal focus in considering insurance coverage for COVID-19-related losses and liabilities has, thus far, primarily concerned business interruption coverage. But there are many other types of coverage that could come into play as businesses recover. Among the various other types of insurance coverage that could be implicated is Directors & Officers (“D&O”) liability insurance.

In the simplest terms, D&O insurance is meant to protect a company’s directors and officers from claims alleging that a mistake, bad judgment, or other malfeasance in operating a business has caused the business to suffer some form of loss or to incur some form of liability. These various circumstances are embodied in the definitions of what D&O policies refer to as “Wrongful Acts.” A typical “Wrongful Acts” definition includes the breach of a duty, neglect, error, misstatement, misleading statement, omission, or act of a director and/or officer of a company. Securities litigation and, to a more limited extent, regulatory investigations are the classic types of claims that arise from conduct typically encompassed within a “Wrongful Act” definition. There are generally three parts to a D&O policy, called Side A, B, and C coverage. Side A coverage is for “Wrongful Acts” committed by directors and/or officers that the company does not or cannot indemnify. Side B coverage exists to reimburse the company for indemnity payments the company makes on behalf of directors and/or officers for their “Wrongful Acts.” Finally, Side C coverage insures the company itself when it is sued. For public companies, Side C coverage is typically triggered only by securities claims. Privately held companies may be covered for a broader range of claims involving the “Wrongful Acts” of directors and officers. D&O Insurance covers not only indemnity payments but also defense costs, i.e. the costs necessary to respond to any litigation or investigation.

As far as COVID-19 is concerned, decisions that companies have made in order to operate under these difficult circumstances may be called into question as things return to “normal.” For example, companies have had to respond to the challenges of the pandemic and to issue public statements about that response. These actions could potentially prompt securities litigation (direct and derivative securities claims) and class actions to the extent that companies and/or a company’s directors and officers have allegedly failed to respond adequately or have made false statements to shareholders and/or the public. Similarly, a company’s financial reports may come under scrutiny, particularly if the company suffered a substantial loss as a result of COVID-19.

Continue reading “What’s Next with D&O and COVID-19 Coverage?”

Top 10 Tips for Insurance Policyholders (Fall 2020)

John A. Gibbons

1. Assess the policies you have and reassess the policies you should buy in the future.

2020 has brought a host of unwelcome events: pandemics, fires, floods, cyberattacks, financial failures, etc. An insurance program tailored to the risks and business opportunities of your specific company can provide for recovery during dark times, and specialized insurance products can help you safely expand your business. It is time to consider how tailored your current program is, and how you can better align insurance assets to your business in the future.

2. Use indemnities and additional insured status to expand your insurance assets.

Everyday business for many companies involves the use of terms and conditions; sales or services orders; and leases that address indemnification, minimum insurance requirements, and additional insured status. A well-thought-out use of additional insured status can allow you to leverage the insurance assets and insurance premiums of counterparties.

3. Ensure that you get the full benefits of your liability and property insurances.

Insurance policies provide many coverages, policy limits, and extensions that may not be readily apparent, and all of which may provide substantial financial assistance in the event of a loss. In addition, specialized forms of insurance, additional riders, or policy wording upgrades can better tailor policies to your specific business attributes. Use the renewal season to explore your options.

4. Avoid “conventional wisdom” about what is or is not covered.

With insurance, words matter! In fact, the wording determines the outcome. Do not accept statements about what others think a policy does or should cover. For example, claims for intentional wrongdoing and punitive damages often are covered by liability policies. Likewise, losses from your supply chain may be covered under your property policies. Non-payments of debts and breaches of contractual promises are covered under various forms of policies. Let the words lead you to coverage.

5. Give notice once you know of a loss or claim.

Typically, notice should be given soon after a loss, claim, or lawsuit, but remember that a delay in giving notice will not necessarily result in the loss of coverage. Consider the potentially applicable insurance assets that may apply and give notice.

6. Insist your insurers fully investigate claims.

Insurers have a duty to investigate claims thoroughly and must look for facts that support coverage.

7. Watch what you say.

Communications with an insurer or an insurance broker regarding a lawsuit against you or a loss are not necessarily privileged.

8. Don’t take “no” for an answer.

A reservation of rights is almost always the start of the insurance claim process, and a denial should not dissuade you from pursuing your rights. Even if coverage is not obvious at first, it may be there, if you look in the right places.

9. Document, document, document your claim.

Whether it is a first-party loss or a liability suit against you, write to your insurer and document your submission of information and materials. Require your insurer to respond in writing and to explain its position. A well-documented chain of correspondence narrows disputes, helps to limit shifting of insurer positions, or helps to make such shifting very apparent if your claim proceeds to formal enforcement measures.

10. Insist that your insurers honor their duties.

In the liability context insurers frequently owe broad duties to defend with independent, conflict-free counsel, even if uncovered claims dominate the lawsuit against you. In property insurance contexts, insurers have duties to help you on an expedited emergency basis to protect your interests immediately after a loss. It is important to hold insurers to their duties to protect you immediately upon assertion of liability or after a loss—delay only benefits insurers.

 

California Corner: Insurer’s Failure to Immediately Commence Defense Waives California Civil Code Section 2860 Rate Limitations for Independent Counsel

Julia K. Holt

California courts strictly enforce an insurer’s duty to immediately commence defending its insured. The insurer’s delay in doing so, even if the delay is short, constitutes a breach of this important duty. In fact, California imposes a 40-day time limit for an insurer to provide its written coverage position under the Prompt, Fair and Equitable Settlement of Claims requirements stated in Title 10 of the California Code of Regulations at Section 2695.7.

A breach in this regard results in a waiver of any claimed right of the insurer to control the defense of its insured. This includes a waiver of the insurer’s ability to seek to impose any Civil Code Section 2860 rate limitations for independent counsel. See Travelers Indem. Co. of Connecticut v. Centex Homes, No. 11-CV-03638-SC, 2015 WL 5836947, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 7, 2015), objections overruled, No. 11-CV-03638-SC, 2015 WL 6164429 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 8, 2015). In Centex Homes, the Court found “that Travelers breached its duty to defend by failing to provide Centex with a defense at least 30 days after the complaints were filed in the [noticed] actions . . . [and therefore] Travelers also lost its right to control Centex’s defense.” Id. Continue reading “California Corner: Insurer’s Failure to Immediately Commence Defense Waives California Civil Code Section 2860 Rate Limitations for Independent Counsel”

Case Review: Seventh Circuit Repudiates Insurer’s Attempt to Sell Illusory Coverage to Policyholder

Shareen Sarwar

Last week, the Seventh Circuit had occasion to consider the scope of a contractual liability exclusion in the context of professional liability coverage. In Crum & Forster Specialty Ins. Co. v. DVO, Inc., No. 18-2571, 2019 WL 4594229 (7th Cir. Sept. 23, 2019), an insurer insisted that its contractual liability exclusion did not render the professional liability coverage it sold illusory. The Court disagreed, however, holding that the exclusion was overbroad and would, if applied, defeat the fundamental purpose of the insurance. The Court further concluded that the policy must be reformed to meet the policyholder’s “reasonable expectations” of coverage.

The insurer had sold both primary and excess insurance policies to its policyholder, DVO, a company which designs and constructs anaerobic digesters. Pursuant to the coverage grant, the insurer agreed to pay DVO’s liabilities for, among other things, “damages or cleanup costs because of a wrongful act” arising out of “a failure to render professional services.” The Court opined that the essential purpose of this insurance was to provide coverage for professional malpractice. Continue reading “Case Review: Seventh Circuit Repudiates Insurer’s Attempt to Sell Illusory Coverage to Policyholder”

An Overview of Intellectual Property Insurance Issues

Omid Safa and Daniel R. Belzil

The strategic importance and economic value of intellectual property (“IP”) can hardly be overstated in today’s global marketplace. Recognizing this, companies devote considerable time and resources to protect their vital IP assets and minimize the financial harm if/when problems arise. Evaluating the risks, understanding the insurance options available, and purchasing meaningful coverage that aligns with the needs of the business are critical pieces of the risk-management puzzle. Navigating the various options can be difficult. This article outlines some of the major issues.

Initially, policyholders have traditionally looked to their Commercial General Liability (“CGL”) policies to respond to IP disputes. Standard-form CGL policies typically cover “advertising injury” (sometimes called “personal and advertising injury”) which, depending on how these terms are defined in the policy, can cover some types of IP claims.

However, not all IP-related claims will fall within the “advertising injury” coverage in a CGL policy. Continue reading “An Overview of Intellectual Property Insurance Issues”

Seeking Insurance Coverage for Data Breach Claims? A Recent Case Confirms that Certain D&O Policies Potentially Provide Coverage

James S. Carter

Businesses are increasingly purchasing dedicated cyber insurance policies to address their cyber and data security exposures. To date, however, many of the judicial decisions addressing insurance for cyber exposures have done so under other, more traditional, types of insurance policies such as commercial general liability (“CGL”) and commercial property policies. Some of these rulings have disappointed policyholders by concluding that such non-cyber insurance policies do not cover cyber exposures. But a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit demonstrates that certain non-cyber policies potentially afford coverage for cyber exposures. In Spec’s Family Partners, Ltd. v Hanover Insurance Co., No. 17-20263, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 17246 (5th Cir. June 25, 2018), the court of appeals found that a contractual liability exclusion in a management liability policy did not excuse the insurer of its duty to defend its policyholder, a private company, against a claim arising out of a payment card data breach. Continue reading “Seeking Insurance Coverage for Data Breach Claims? A Recent Case Confirms that Certain D&O Policies Potentially Provide Coverage”

Federal Court Says Subpoena Is a “Claim” Triggering Insurance Coverage

Jared Zola

An issue frequently raised in coverage disputes involving claims-made liability insurance policies is determining whether certain pre-lawsuit events or disputes constitute a “claim” sufficient to trigger coverage.

Unlike occurrence-based liability policies that respond in the policy year or years during which the coverage-triggering event occurred (e.g., the years in which a person sustained injury in an asbestos bodily injury claim), a claims-made liability insurance policy is triggered upon the insured’s receipt of a claim. Upon an insured providing notice of a claim, its insurers may dispute whether the notice-triggering event constitutes a “claim” at all. Continue reading “Federal Court Says Subpoena Is a “Claim” Triggering Insurance Coverage”

The Ninth Circuit Reconfirms that under California Law an Insurer Bears a Heavy Burden to Demonstrate an Exclusion Eviscerates Its Defense Duty

Julia K. Holt

Under California law, the insurer has the heavy burden of establishing there is no potential for coverage of an underlying claim. With respect to the duty to defend, “[t]o prevail, the insured must prove the existence of a potential for coverage, while the insurer must establish the absence of any such potential. In other words, the insured need only show that the underlying claim may fall within policy coverage; the insurer must prove it cannot.” Montrose Chem. Corp. v. Superior Court, 6 Cal. 4th 287, 300 (1993). The Ninth Circuit reconfirmed this fundamental principle earlier this year in Hanover Insurance Co. v. Paul M. Zagaris, Inc., No. 17-15477, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5429 (9th Cir. March 2, 2018), when it upheld the district court’s decision that the insurer failed to establish that an exclusion for deceptive business practices applied to the entire proposed class action for an alleged kickback scheme. Continue reading “The Ninth Circuit Reconfirms that under California Law an Insurer Bears a Heavy Burden to Demonstrate an Exclusion Eviscerates Its Defense Duty”

Insurance Coverage for Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims

Jared Zola and James R. Murray

The last several weeks have brought seemingly unending news detailing allegations of sexual impropriety against politicians, celebrities, the news media, and other public figures. As a wave of victims march forward and social movements such as the #MeToo silence breakers grow, there are no signs that sexual harassment claims will subside. There is little doubt that companies and individuals across all industries have and will continue to see an increasing share of similar charges. As companies continue to address this crisis and attempt to protect their brand reputation from tarnishing, they may find some economic relief from their Employment Practices Liability Insurance (“EPLI”) coverage. Continue reading “Insurance Coverage for Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims”