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.

To read our full client alert, please click here.

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?”

Under Pressure to Diversify: Availability of D&O Coverage for Corporate Diversity Claims

Natasha Romagnoli and Hannah K. Ahn

With the recent rise in novel diversity lawsuits, which have targeted some of the leading companies across the country, and are sure to be a hot topic of litigation this year and beyond, policyholders are highly encouraged to review their existing directors and officers (“D&O”) insurance policies to ensure that they have adequate protection in place to cover diversity claims.

If you are one of the more than 100 million people who watched the Super Bowl, you noticed that companies are starting to be more vocal about the importance of diversity. With ads featuring all Black actors and more modern families, companies are celebrating inclusion and promising to join the fight to end systemic racism. The NFL itself is a prime example of this change in messaging. Years after Colin Kaepernick faced backlash for kneeling to protest inequality, the NFL ran its own ad this year that highlighted its pledge to spend $250 million to end racism.

Talk of diversity and inclusion has been growing—and growing more insistent—starting with the first Black Lives Matter protests in 2013 and building to last year’s protests following the murder of George Floyd, who died while being forcibly detained by Minneapolis police. Despite their messages of support for diversity and inclusion, however, many companies have struggled to promote diversity in their own ranks, especially with respect to their boards of directors and C-suite executives. But consumers and investors alike are now pressuring companies to meaningfully respond to their demands for internal change. Of late, this includes shareholder derivative lawsuits that use federal securities law not only to target the company’s lack of success in diversifying, but also to challenge the commitment of the company’s directors and officers to enact change. These novel “diversity lawsuits” open a new realm of potential liability, in addition to forcing companies to consider how to promote diversity in their ranks and respond to internal and customer demands for change.

While there have only been a handful of diversity lawsuits filed as of today’s date, the allegations against some of the best known names in business, like Facebook, Oracle, and Monster Beverages, could easily apply to other publicly-traded companies across the country. The individual details vary from case to case, but the common charge against the directors and officers of the sued companies is that they breached their fiduciary duties and violated Section 14(a) of the federal Securities Exchange Act by failing to include diverse directors on their boards and in their senior executive ranks, while at the same time touting their commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusion in the company’s proxy statements and other corporate publications. Corporate counsel can forget about their old playbook for dealing with employee discrimination complaints or outside groups threatening a boycott. This is new legal terrain being staked out by stakeholders in companies (in some cases, institutional investors) and the class action lawyers representing them.

To read our full client alert, please click here.

This client alert was reprinted in Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory Solutions U.S. in April 2021.

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.

 

Is There a Glitch in Insurance Coverage for Social Engineering Scams?

James S. Carter

Social engineering scams seeking to deceive companies into making wire transfers to fraudulent bank accounts continue to plague companies. According to the FBI, social engineering fraud costs businesses billions of dollars each year. On top of the lost funds, social engineering scams can lead to substantial investigation costs and even litigation.

Many businesses trust their crime or fidelity insurance policies to protect them from social engineering losses. Insurers, however, take the position that such policies do not cover all social engineering scams. Depending on the type of social engineering scam or how it happens to play out, insurers may deny coverage, depriving the policyholder of valuable insurance protection. Continue reading “Is There a Glitch in Insurance Coverage for Social Engineering Scams?”

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”

Pay Attention to Policy Language in a Hardening Insurance Market

Ian Ascher[1] and Jared Zola

The insurance market has proven to be a difficult environment for buyers in 2019. The long tenure of the soft insurance market cycle is changing, and is presenting challenges with pricing, capacity, and sustainability of favorable coverage terms. Coming out of difficult natural catastrophe years in 2017 and 2018, the property insurance market took a sharp turn to protect insurers’ bottom lines. While hardening of the property insurance market was expected, the broader casualty market has taken this opportunity to drive corrective action on their portfolios as well, leaving insurance buyers with little leverage.

How Insurers Are Reacting to the Market Shift

Insurers are approaching the market shift with different strategies, some focused on rate increases, while others are focused on restricting terms, or both. While individual loss experience still plays a role in renewal outcomes, there appears to be more of a portfolio-level push on rate and terms regardless of individual quality of risk factors for any given policyholder. In this environment, stricter control over capacity deployment leads to less competition, which may force the buyer into tough decisions regarding what utility insurance provides for its organization. The guarantee of comprehensive coverage at a fair price becomes harder to balance in a setting where definitively having both is less than certain. Continue reading “Pay Attention to Policy Language in a Hardening Insurance Market”

Insurers Seize on Kokesh Ruling to Disclaim Coverage for SEC Disgorgement

Justin F. Lavella and Alexander H. Berman

In April 2017, white collar and securities attorneys, as well as potential defendants, cheered the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Kokesh v. SEC, which held that civil disgorge­ment, when imposed as part of a Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) enforcement proceeding, is a “penalty” and therefore subject to a five-year statute of limitations.[1] At the time, Kokesh was hailed as limiting the size of future dis­gorgement awards, in some cases dramatically. However, the court’s categorization of SEC disgorgement as a “penalty” may have much wider ripple effects that could jeopardize billions of dollars in potential future insurance recover­ies. This ripple effect first manifested itself in J.P. Morgan Sec., Inc. v. Vigilant Ins. Co., where New York’s intermediate appellate court recently held that an SEC disgorgement settlement was no longer a covered “loss” under the defendant’s insurance policy, because Kokesh recategorized such disgorgements as non-covered “penalties.”[2] Continue reading “Insurers Seize on Kokesh Ruling to Disclaim Coverage for SEC Disgorgement”

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”