Saturday, May 4, 2013

SJC issues problematic decision on title insurers' duty to defend

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has held that a title insurer does not have a duty to defend an insured against all counts of a complaint, and that a title insurer engaging in litigation to cure a title defect covered by the policy does not have a duty to defend the insured against reasonably foreseeable counterclaims.

Elizabeth Moore lived with her husband Thomas Moore.  The title to the house was in Thomas's name.  In 2001, as part of refinancing, Thomas executed a note and mortgage to a predecessor of GMAC, which obtained a First American title insurance policy. At that time he conveyed the property to himself and Elizabeth. 

Due to an error in how the paperwork was filed, when Thomas died in 2007 the property vested in Elizabeth, to the exclusion of GMAC. 

First American could have resolved this title defect through negotiation or by initiating litigation.  It chose to initiate litigation on behalf of GMAC against Elizabeth.  Elizabeth brought counterclaims against GMAC, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, violation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A, and money had and received for mortgage payments alleged to have been made to GMAC in error.

GMAC sought from First American costs incurred in defending the counterclaims. 

In GMAC Mortgage, LLC v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 464 Mass. 733 (2013), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts assumed that the counterclaims were not causes of action that were covered by the insurance policy.  It addressed whether First American was nevertheless obligated to defend. It noted that the situation was analogous to a complaint that alleges some causes of action that are covered by an insurance policy and other causes of action that are not covered.  In those situations, liability insurers have a duty to defend the whole action.  (The court called this the "in for one, in for all" rule; I generally refer to it simply as the duty to defend.) 

The court held that the in for one, in for all rule of general liability insurance defense does not apply to title insurance, because title insurance is fundamentally different from general liability insurance.  Title insurance does not insure against future risks; it insures against risks (clouds on a title) that were in existence (but unknown) when the policy was issued. 

The court's analysis is incorrect.  Liability insurance often covers risks that are in existence but unknown when the policy was issued.  Long-tail losses come to mind.  Those are claims for environmental contamination or asbestosis, for example, where the loss occurred but was undiscovered over a long period of time.

The court continued, "in light of the limited purpose and scope of title as compared to general liability insurance, title insurers should not be obliged to defend against non-covered claims just because they may be asserted in litigation that also implicates title-related issues to a limited extent.  Moreover, because title issues are discrete, they can be bifurcated fairly easily from related claims, . . . thus, the central policy behind that 'in for one, in for all' -- that parsing multiple claims is not feasible -- is not implicated to the same extent in the title insurance context as in the general liability insurance context."

The court also held that a title insurer has no duty to defend counterclaims that were a reasonably foreseeable response to a choice by the title insurer to institute litigation. 

Somewhat offensively, in my view, the court noted that "because the issues covered by a title policy are relatively discrete, an attorney for a title insurance company (who typically specializes in real property issues) feasibly can defend only the title-related issues."  While I am sure there are some attorneys for title insurance companies whose practices are limited to real estate litigation, title insurance companies are perfectly capable of hiring attorneys who have knowledge of both real estate litigation and tort litigation deriving from real estate disputes.  But because the court thought that would be asking too much of title insurance companies, it declined to impose a complete defense obligation on them. 

It also declined to impose that obligation because a "reasonably foreseeable" rule of title litigation "would quickly become a work-around to our conclusion that 'in for one, in for all' does not apply to title insurance."  (Perhaps; but so what?) 

In what reads to me as doublespeak, the court wrote, "we disagree with GMAC that it is the litigation initiated by a title insurance company that exposes the risk of third party claims.  Instead the exposure to risk comes from the title defect itself, not its method of cure." 

The court softens its position somewhat when it notes that in this case the counterclaims were a result of the fact that GMAC continued to pursue foreclosure when it knew of the title defect.  "Moore may very well have sued GMAC for such intentional conduct even if First American had attempted to cure the title defect through negotiation s opposed to litigation.  For this reason, we are unwilling to go so far as to say that First American invited the liability of Moore's action."  That's a fine statement -- but it contradicts the court's holding that a title insurer has no duty to defend counterclaims that are a reasonably foreseeable response to litigation the insurer chose to litigate.  The court is now saying that in this case the counterclaims were not a reasonably foreseeable result of the insurer's litigation -- they were a result of the insured's, not the insurer's, actions.

The court further softened its position by stating that a title insurer may have a duty to defend an insured against compulsory counterclaims. 

Thanks to Mike Tracy at Rudolph Friedmann for bringing this case to my attention when it was first issued.    

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