As Banks Fail, Will Insurance Coverage Lawsuits Follow?

As Banks Fail, Will Insurance Coverage Lawsuits Follow?

One of the many distinctive traits of the litigation that surrounded the S&L crisis in the late 80s and early 90s was the plethora of lawsuits  between the FDIC (and other federal banking regulators), on the one hand,  and the failed banks' insurers, on the other hand,  over the interpretation of the banks' management liability insurance policies. Among the questions surrounding the current bank failure wave has been whether or not we will see a similar round of insurance coverage litigation. If a lawsuit filed last week in the Middle District of Alabama is any indication, the anticipated insurance coverage litigation may be on its way.

The coverage lawsuit arises out of the massive failure of Colonial Bancorp, which closed its doors on August 14, 2009. The bank's holding company filed for bankruptcy on August 25, 2009. Among the factors contributing to Colonial's failure was the criminal conspiracy relating to the failed mortgage lender, Taylor Bean & Whitaker. In April 2011, Lee Farkas, Taylor Bean's ex-Chairman, was convicted of wire fraud and securities fraud.

Prior to Farkas's conviction, two Colonial Bank employees pled guilty in connection with the Taylor Bean scheme. As reflected here, on March 2, 2011, Catherine Kissick, a former senior vice president of Colonial Bank and head of its Mortgage Warehouse Lending Division, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank, wire and securities fraud for participating in the Taylor Bean scheme. As reflected here, on March 16, 2011, Teresa Kelly, the bank's Operations Supervisor and Collateral Analyst, pled guilty on similar charges.

The two bank employees allegedly caused the bank to purchase from Taylor Bean and hold $400 million in mortgage assets that had no value. The employees also allegedly engaged in fraudulent actions to cover up overdrafts of Taylor Bean at the bank. The employees are also alleged to have had the bank engage in the fictitious trades with Taylor Bean that had no value.

At the time of the bank's failure, the bank carried three financial institution bonds. At or about the time that Colonial failed, the bank submitted notices of claim under the financial institutions bonds in connection with the activities and actions that ultimately were the topic of the criminal guilty pleas of the bank employees.

In a complaint filed on July 29 in the Southern District of Alabama (a copy of which can be found here), the FDIC as receiver for Colonial Bank, as well as the bankrupt bank holding company on its own behalf, filed an action against the bank's bond insurer. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the losses caused by the misconduct "constitute recoverable losses under the Bonds up to the full aggregate limits of liability of the Bonds." 

The complaint states that the bond insurer "has neither accepted nor denied the Plaintiffs' claims under the Bonds." The complaint alleges  that the insurer "has failed to investigate the claims and losses in a reasonable and appropriate manner." After cataloging the back and forth between the FDIC and the insurer on their respective efforts to enter a confidentiality agreement, the complaint alleges that the insurer "has declined to enter into any of the proposed confidentiality agreements or offer appropriate confidentiality agreements of its own," and "hence" the FDIC is unable to produce the confidential information that the insurer has requested. The complaint asserts a single claim for breach of contract.

Interestingly, the complaint does not specify whether or not the FDIC or the bankrupt holding company is entitled to recover under the bonds, but rather says that the amount of any recovery under the bonds is to be deposited in a bankruptcy court escrow account, where the issue of entitlement to the proceeds will be determined.

There are a number of arguably unusual features of this dispute. First, it is filed in connection with the failed bank's financial institutions bonds, rather than in connection with the failed bank's D&O insurance policy. To be sure, given the circumstances surrounding the bank employees' guilty pleas, the implication of the bonds is hardly surprising. But the typical bank closure during the current round of bank failures will not implicate the failed bank's financial institution bonds. The relevant insurance issues will more likely arise, if at all, under the failed bank's D&O policy.

Another interesting thing about this dispute is that the parties are in coverage litigation even though the carrier has not even denied coverage. It looks as if the parties' so-far unsuccessful attempts to hammer out a confidentiality agreement have gotten a little bit out of hand. It is mercifully uncommon for parties in similar circumstances to be unable to come up with a mutually acceptable confidentiality agreement. It may be that once the parties in this circumstance can finally manage to come up with a confidentiality agreement that this whole dispute will resolve itself without the need for further litigation (whether or not there was ever really any need for litigation in the first place.)

But the fact that the FDIC has not hesitated to file this suit in the first place certainly does evince a willingness to use the court to pursue its claims, as receiver, in connection with failed banks' insurance policies. And while this case may not on its face present any significant coverage issues of more general significance, the likelihood is that as the FDIC presses claims for insurance recovery, that some of these claims will find their way into court with significant implications for questions of coverage under the applicable policies.

As I have said before, so many aspects of the current bank failure wave provide a feeling of déjà vu for those of us who lived through the S&L crisis. If the feeling is not necessarily one of nostalgia, it at least has a certain familiarity. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not there will be any where near the amount of coverage litigation this time around. It just looks to me from this recent lawsuit that just like last time, the FDIC is not messing around, and it is not going to hesitate to use the courts to pursue claims against failed banks' insurers.

Read other items of interest from the world of directors & officers liability, with occasional commentary, at the D&O Diary, a blog by Kevin LaCroix.

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