D&O Insurance: "Disgorgement" Paid in SEC Settlement Held Not Covered

Carriers generally contend that  insurance does not cover amounts that represent "disgorgement" or that are "restitutionary" in nature. But what makes a particular payment a "disgorgement"?  In a December 13, 2011 opinion (here), the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Department, First Division, held that amounts Bear Stearns paid in settlement of SEC late trading and market timing  allegations represented a disgorgement that is not covered under its  insurance program.  Because the appellate court's decision reversed the lower court ruling that the settlement payment did not constitute a disgorgement, the case provides an interesting perspective of the question of what makes a particular payment a "disgorgement" for purposes of determining insurance policy coverage.

Background

In 2006, the SEC notified Bear Stearns that the agency was investigating late trading and market timing activities units of Bear Stearns had undertaken for the benefit of clients of the company. The agency advised the company that it intended to seek injunctive relief and monetary sanctions of $720 million. Bear Stearns disputed the allegations, among other thing arguing that it did not share in the profits or benefit from the late trading, which generated only $16.9 million in revenue.

Bear Stearns ultimately made an offer of settlement and --without admitting or denying the agency "findings" - consented to the SEC's entry of an Administrative Order, in which, among other things, Bear Stearns agree to pay a total of $215 million, of which $160 million was labeled "disgorgement" and $90 million as a penalty.

At the relevant time, Bear maintained a program of insurance that, according to the subsequent complaint, totaled $200 million. Bear Stearns sought to have the carriers in the program indemnify the company for the company's settlement with the SEC. However, the carriers claimed that because the $160 million payment was labeled "disgorgement" in the Administrative Order, it did not represent a covered loss under the insurance policies.

In 2009, J.P. Morgan (into which Bear Stearns merged in 2008) filed an action seeking a judicial declaration that the insurers were obliged to indemnify the company for the amount of the $160 million payment in excess of the $10 million self insured retention. The company's supplemental summons and amended complaint can be found here. The company argued that notwithstanding the Administrative Order's reference to the amount as "disgorgement," its payment to resolve the SEC investigation constituted compensatory damages and therefore represented a covered loss under the insurance program. In support of this contention, the company further argued that Bear Stearns' earned only $16.9 million in revenue and virtually no profit from the late trading and market timing activities, and therefore the SEC settlement amount could not have represented a disgorgement. The carriers moved to dismiss the company's declaratory judgment action

The Lower Court's September 14, 2010 Order

In an order entered September 14, 2010, (here), New York (New York County) Supreme Court Charles E. Ramos denied the carriers' motion to dismiss. He held that the Administrative Order's use of the term "disgorgement" did not conclusively establish that the settlement amounts were precluded from coverage.

In reaching this conclusion, he noted that the Administrative Order "does not contain an explicit finding that Bear Stearns directly obtained ill-gotten gains or profited by facilitated these trading practices," and he found that the provision of the Order alone "do not establish as a matter of law that Bear Stearns seeks coverage for losses that include the disgorgement of improperly acquired funds." He also found that the Order does not, as would be required to preclude coverage "conclusively link the disgorgement to improperly acquired funds."  He noted in that regard that "there are no findings that Bear Stearns directly generated profits for itself as the result" of the alleged misconduct and for him to so conclude now "would be to resolve disputed issues of material fact."

Because he found that he was "unable to conclude, on the basis of the language of the Administrative Order alone that the disgorgement is specifically linked to the improperly acquired funds," he rejected the insurers' argument that they were entitled to dismissal.

The December 13 Appellate Decision

A December 13, 2011 opinion written by Justice Richard Andrias of  the N.Y. Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, reversed the lower court's holding, granted the motions to dismiss and directed the entry of judgment in favor of the insurers. Contrary to Justice Ramos, the appellate court concluded that the sequence of events and allegations "read as a whole" are:

not reasonably susceptible to any interpretation other than that Bear Stearns knowingly and intentionally facilitated illegal late trading for preferred customers, and that the relief provisions of the SEC Order required disgorgement of funds gained through that illegal activity.

The Court went on to state that "the fact that the SEC did not itemize how it reached the agreed upon disgorgement figure does not raise an issue as to whether the disgorgement payment was in fact compensatory." 

The Court further noted that in generating revenue of at least $16.9 million, "Bear Stearns knowingly and affirmatively facilitated an illegal scheme which generated hundreds of millions of dollars for collaborating parties and agreed to disgorge $160,000,000 in its offer of settlement."  

Discussion         

Given that the SEC Administrative Order expressly identified the $160 million portion of the settlement as a "disgorgement," it was always going to be an uphill battle to establish that the amount was not a disgorgement. The company argued essentially that the amount was not a disgorgement because the payment did not correspond to any specific pecuniary benefit that Bear Stearns received. The company argued in paying the amount it was not so much disgorging anything so much as it was paying damages. Justice Ramos concluded that the Administrative Order was not factual conclusive and that there was enough of an issue that dismissal was not appropriate.

The appellate court essentially concluded that the question was not so much whether Bear Stearns was disgorging an amount corresponding to its own specific pecuniary gain, but rather whether or not it was disgorging amounts that its "illegal scheme" had "generated."  In effect, it was enough to show that there was a benefit from the illegal conduct, whether or not person making the disgorgement directly received that benefit.

This case is fairly fact specific, but it still a useful and interesting decision because it reaffirms the basic principles around the insurability of disgorgements and because it illustrates the issues to be considered in determining whether or not a specific amount represents a disgorgement or not.

All of that said, the company may still seek to appeal this decision to the New York Court of Appeals and so there may yet be more to be heard in connection with this case.

Chris Dolmetch's December 13, 2011 Bloomberg article discussing the opinion can be found here.

Advisen Management Liability Journal: Although I suspect that most readers of this blog have already seen it, if you have not yet had a chance, you will want to take a look at the inaugural issue of the Advisen Management Liability Journal, which can be found here. The publication is attractive and interesting and it clearly represents a welcome addition to help in the exchange of ideas in the D&O insurance industry. My congratulations to everyone at Advisen for this inaugural issue, particularly my good friend, Susanne Sclafane, the publication's senior editor. I am sure everyone in the industry is looking forward to future editions of this publication.

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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