D&O Insurance: Coverage for SafeNet Options Backdating Securities Suit Settlement Denied

D&O Insurance: Coverage for SafeNet Options Backdating Securities Suit Settlement Denied

The options backdating scandal may now be ancient history, but questions surrounding insurance coverage for the scandal's consequences apparently continue to live on. In a September 9, 2011 opinion applying Maryland law, Southern District of New York Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled in a coverage action brought by SafeNet's excess D&O insurer that, among many things, there is no coverage under the policy for SafeNet's $25 million options backdating-related securities lawsuit settlement.

The opinion addresses a number of recurring policy issues, including questions of claim interrelatedness and relation back; imputation of fraudulent misconduct; application of the consent to settlement provision; and imputation of application misrepresentations for purposes of policy rescission.  

Beginning in early 2006, SafeNet experienced a series of legal problems. These problems began with the company's February 2006 announcement that it was restating prior financial statements. On May 18, 2006, the company announced it had received a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney as well as an informal inquiry from the SEC. Shortly thereafter, the company announced that it was forming a special committee to investigate its stock option granting practice. In September 2006 the company announced that the committee concluded that certain prior stock options had been accounting for using incorrect measurement dates and as a result its financial statements for the relevant periods would have to be restated.

These developments led to a variety of legal proceedings, including a securities class action lawsuits (about which refer here). There was also an SEC enforcement proceeding and a criminal investigation. The SEC proceeding resulted in the entry of a permanent injunction against the company's former CFO, Carole Argo. Argo also pled guilty to a single count of securities fraud. The consolidated  securities class action litigation was later settled for $25 million.

For the period March 12, 2005 to March 12, 2006, the company carried $15 million of D&O insurance, arranged with a primary $10 million layer, and a $5 million layer of insurance excess of the primary. For the period March 12, 2006 to March 12, 2007, the company also carried $15 million of D&O insurance, arranged in the same way as the prior year.

On February 28, 2006, the company sent its primary carrier a copy of the initial financial restatement disclosure. Both the primary carrier and the excess carrier accepted this letter as a notice of circumstances that might give rise to a claim. The company advised the carriers of the various legal matters as they later arose. The carriers took the position that all of the subsequent notices and claims related back to the initial notice of circumstances and therefore the various matters implicated only the 2005-06 policies, regardless of when the later claims may have been made.

Later, after Argo entered her guilty plea, the primary carrier advised the company that it was no longer entitled to coverage under its policy. The excess carrier advised the company that due to the guilty plea, "a declination of coverage is in order in certain respects" under the excess policy, and that "rescission of the policy may be appropriate." The excess carrier asked the company to enter a tolling agreement.

SafeNet later settled the securities class action lawsuit and paid the settlement amount. In the later coverage action, the parties stipulated that the company did not notify the excess carrier of the settlement negotiations and did not seek the excess carrier's consent to settlement. In the later coverage action, the company contended that it spent more than $20 million in defense costs for itself and the directors and officers, including more than $10 million in defense costs for directors and officers other than Argo.

The excess carrier filed an action against Safeguard, Argo and the company's former CEO, Anthony Caputo., seeking a judicial declaration of its coverage obligations and seeking a rescission of the renewal excess insurance policy. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss arguing amount other things that the case could not proceed without the primary carrier as a party and arguing further that the case was premature because the primary policy had not been exhausted. In a December 7, 2010 order (discussed here, scroll down), Judge Buchwald denied the defendants' motions to dismiss. The parties then filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

In her September 9 opinion, Judge Buchwald denied the defendants' summary judgment motion and granted the excess carriers' motion in part and denied the excess carrier's motion in part. Among other things, Judge Buchwald agreed that all of the claims relate back to the 2005-06 policy and that only the 2005-06 policy was implicated; that any loss incurred by Argo was precluded from coverage by the policy's fraudulent conduct exclusion, but that coverage for the company's loss was not precluded by that exclusion; that because the company had failed to obtain the excess carrier's  settlement approval, there was no coverage under the excess policy for the $25 million securities class action settlement; and that to the extent that there is coverage under the renewal excess policy, the excess carrier was entitled to rescind the policy as to Argo and the company based on Argo's application misrepresentations.

In contending that they were entitled to coverage under the 2006-07 renewal excess policy, the defendants had argued that the various option backdating problems were not even discovered until the middle of 2006 and therefore could not relate  back to the February 2006 notification sent to the carriers. In rejecting these arguments, Judge Buchwald found that in the class action lawsuit, the financial irregularities disclosed in February 2006 and the stock options backdating were "part of an interrelated course of conduct." 

With respect to the policy's relation back language, Judge Buchwald said that "these provisions make clear that the relation back of a claim turns upon the nature of the allegations in a subsequent Claim, not simply on the relationship in fact between an earlier notice of circumstances and a later Claim." Because of the interrelationship between the two types of conduct and the "broad-relation back language" in the policies, she concluded that the subsequent matters relate back to the original notification and therefore only the 2005-06 policy was implicated.

Although she concluded that the fraudulent conduct exclusion precluded coverage for Argo, she concluded that the exclusion did not preclude coverage for the company. Even though policy language imputed "facts" and "knowledge" possessed by Argo to the company for purposes of determining the applicability of the exclusion to the company, the exclusion still does not apply to the company unless there has been an adverse judgment against the company. There was no adverse judgment against the company, and the judgment against Argo cannot be imputed to the company. Accordingly, notwithstanding Argo's guilty plea and the imputation to the company of the facts and knowledge possessed by her, the exclusion does not operation to preclude coverage for the company.

However, the fact that the exclusion did not apply to the company does not mean that the company is entitled to coverage under the policy. Judge Buchwald concluded that the company was not entitled to coverage under the policy for the $25 million settlement because it had failed to get the carrier's prior consent to settle. She said further that the she "could not conclude that the company was excused" from complying with the consent to settlement provisions. 

As for the question of whether or not there was coverage under the policy for the more than $10 million the company incurred defending the directors and officers other than Argo, Judge Buchwald concluded that because there was no record evidence that the company had actually indemnified any particular director and officer and the state of the record is "undeveloped" she could not decide the question of coverage for the defense fees.

Finally, although she had concluded that SafeNet's claims did not implicate the renewal excess policy, Judge Buchwald concluded that to the extent the renewal policy does apply, the excess carrier was entitled to rescission as to Argo and as to the company. She found that because Argo admitted to knowingly and with intent to defraud causing the company to file inaccurate public filing, the carrier was entitled to rescission was to her. Moreover, Argo's knowledge was imputable to other insureds. And while the policy allows individual insureds to establish lack of actual knowledge, it does not allow the company to establish that it lacked knowledge.

Discussion

This case is a veritable textbook of D&O Insurance coverage issues and Judge Buchwald's opinion contains a number of rulings that could be important in many other cases.

Her ruling that the subsequent legal proceedings all relate back to the date of the initial notice, and therefore that only the 2005-06 policy is triggered, is likely to be of particular interest in many of the credit crisis related cases, in connection with many of which the insurance carriers are arguing that all of the various lawsuits filed against a particular company all relate back to a single, earlier policy year. Indeed that is the position that the carriers are taking in connection the Lehman Brothers lawsuits, as discussed in a recent post. The broad reading Judge Buchwald gave to the interrelated claim and relation back language here could prove to be very helpful for the carriers in many of these cases.

On the other hand, Judge Buchwald's interpretation of the fraudulent conduct exclusion, and the limitations on what she was willing to impute to the company, will likely motivate carriers to quickly review  their policy language to see whether the imputation provisions in their fraud exclusion require an adjudication of the fraudulent misconduct even when the fraud has been  imputed. I suspect it came as a surprise here that if there was an adjudication of fraud as to Argo and that fraud was imputed to the company that the company could still retain coverage under the policy if the adjudication itself was not imputed to the company or there was otherwise no adjudication of the company's fraudulent misconduct. I suspect many carriers are going to want to hold up their fraud exclusion and compare them to the fraud exclusion applicable here to see whether their fraud exclusion might operate as the fraud exclusion did here

As an aside, it is probably worth noting that Judge Buchwald was satisfied that a guilty plea represented an "adjudication" sufficient to trigger the exclusion. Perhaps that is a common sense interpretation, but I can certainly imagine the argument that a guilty plea is different from an adjudication, since there was no separate determination by a finder of fact, but merely an admission. Judge Buchwald's conclusion that the guilty plea was sufficient would seem to undercut the argument that the exclusion could have said that an admission was sufficient to trigger the exclusion, but instead it required an adjudicated determination, which is different from an admission.

On the other hand, with respect to the topic of imputation, in her analysis of the rescission issues, Judge Buchwald found that Argo's knowledge was imputable to the company under the applicable policy language. Thus Argo's knowledge of application misrepresentations was sufficient to rescind coverage not only for herself but for the company as well. What observers may find most noteworthy about this is not just the imputation to the company but the fact that the application misrepresentations to which the imputation applied were in the form of misstatements in the company's financial filings. In other words, the very financial misrepresentations that might attract a lawsuit might also wind up removing the company's insurance coverage - at least where as here a senior corporate official has pled guilty to knowing fraudulent misrepresentation.

The final determination of significance in Judge Buchwald's opinion is her conclusion that the company's failure to obtain prior consent to settlement precludes coverage under the policy for the settlement. While a number of court have recently reiterated the enforceability of the consent to settlement clause (refer, for example, here), what is noteworthy here is that she found that the failure to obtain consent was not waived even where the carrier has said it has grounds to deny coverage, is contemplating rescission and has asked for a tolling agreement. The company undoubtedly felt like it had been left by the carrier to do the best it could to look after its interests, yet Judge Buchwald had found that the consent requirement had not been waive.

Judge Buchwald's willingness to enforce the consent requirement even in these circumstances is yet another reminder of the critical importance of communicating with the carrier even under these types of strained circumstances. One protective step the company might have been able to take to avoid triggering a consent problem would be to obtain the carrier's agreement that it would not raise the consent issue as an additional defense to coverage beyond those the carrier had said it believed it had grounds to assert.

Ad Nauseum: I was flipping channels earlier this week and I stopped to watch part of a major league soccer game. The field on which the game was being played had a billboard that said "Infinitum." I idly wondered what product or service  the billboard might be referring to, and then it hit me - the billboard is nothing less than an "ad infinitum."

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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