Legal malpractice claim alleging wrongful acts before and after retro date falls within professional liability policy’s prior acts exclusion

by Christopher Graham and Joseph Kelly

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Claims-made insurers limit risk by insuring only those claims alleging wrongful acts after a certain date. Their means for limiting risk often is a prior acts exclusion. The date often is before, rather than at policy inception and thus is known as a retroactive date.

But what if a Claim alleges wrongful acts before and after the retroactive date? Insurers also typically limit their risk to claims alleging wrongful acts unrelated to wrongful acts before the retroactive date. They typically wish to avoid insuring a Claim having anything to do with the pre-existing wrongful acts, even if it also alleges new wrongful acts.

But when are pre- and post-retro date wrongful acts related? Insurers address the issue through varying policy wording. But regardless of the wording, it’s a frequently litigated issue.

And so it was in American Guarantee & Liability Ins. Co. v. The Abram Law Group, et al, Case No. 13-13134 (11th Cir. Feb. 14, 2014). In that case, developer and bank sued lawyers alleging in count one malpractice in a January 26, 2006 closing for acquiring vacant land, with bank financing. That January date was before the May 1, 2006 retroactive date in the lawyers’ professional liability policy.

But developer and bank in a second count in the same suit alleged lawyers and title company committed fraud and conspiracy in an April 23, 2007 closing for a loan for developing the vacant land into a subdivision. The second closing thus was after the May 1, 2006 retroactive date.

In the first closing, the lawyers allegedly failed to identify exceptions to “good title.” So developer acquired land with unexpected title exceptions; and bank’s mortgage was subject to those exceptions. After the first closing, developer identified the exceptions. But the lawyers through the April 2007 closing allegedly covered up their earlier malpractice and made it appear that the exceptions weren’t an issue. They did so to avoid liability to developer and so title insurer wouldn’t have to cover the title exceptions. The lawyers also were title insurer’s agents and faced liability to title insurer for any mistakes. Developer and bank’s fraud and conspiracy allegations thus were based on the lawyers’ alleged post-retro date cover up of their pre-retro date mistakes.

The defendant title insurer meanwhile cross-claimed against the lawyers to indemnify it for any judgment for developer and bank involving the January 2006 loan and for negligence in failing to identity title exceptions. So the cross-claim only alleged wrongful acts before the May 1, 2006 retroactive date.

As is typical, this insurer used a prior acts exclusion to limit risk for claims alleging wrongful acts before the May 1, 2006 retroactive date. It also limited risk for claims alleging wrongful acts after the retroactive date, where the Claims nevertheless were based on wrongful acts before the retroactive date.

This is the wording insurer used: “This policy specifically excludes coverage for Damages and Claim Expenses because of Claims brought against any Insured based on any act or omission or any Related Act or Omission that occurred or is alleged to have occurred prior to 5/01/06.”

The insurer defined “Related Act or Omission” as “an act or omission that forms the basis for two or more claims, where a series of continuous, repeated, interrelated or causally connected acts or omissions give rise to one or more claims….”

In the prior acts exclusion, the phrase “that occurred or is alleged to have occurred prior to 5/01/06” modified the phrase “Claim brought against any Insured based on any act or omission or any Related Act or Omission.” It would have made more sense for the exclusion to read: “This policy specifically excludes coverage for Damages and Claim Expenses because of Claims brought against any Insured based on any act or omission that occurred or is alleged to have occurred prior to 5/01/06 or any Related Act or Omission that occurred or is alleged to have occurred on or after 5/01/06.” (Emphasis added).

But the Appeals Court didn’t address that issue and it made no difference in the result at least because the evidence was that the Claims, even those involving post-retro date wrongful acts, otherwise were based on an act or omission that occurred or was alleged to have occurred before the May 1, 2006 retro-date.

According to the Appeals Court: “Though [lawyers] contend Count Two alleging fraud in the underlying lawsuit relates only to the April 23, 2007, Development Loan closing and thus is covered under the policy, the acts and omissions giving rise to the malpractice claim from the January 26, 2006, Acquisition Loan closing also undergird the fraud claim regarding the Development Loan.”

“The alleged negligence involved in the Acquisition Loan closing is the necessary predicate to the fraudulent scheme to extinguish the 2006 lender’s title insurance policy and fraudulent insertion of additional exceptions to the 2007 title insurance policy. Further, the [other] claims . . . all flow from [lawyers’] alleged failure to disclose the restrictions and easements in the January 26, 2006, closing.”

So: “The district court did not err in determining the acts and omissions surrounding the Acquisition Loan closing form the basis of the claims regarding the fraud alleged during the Development Loan closing . . . .”

The Appeals Court also stated that the district court did not err “in finding the other acts or omissions surrounding the [post-retro date] Development Loan closing were interrelated to or causally connected to the acts or omissions at the [pre-retro date] Acquisition closing. Cf. Cont’l Cas. Co. v. Wendt, 205 F.3d 1258, 1262-63 (11th Cir. 2000) (applying plain meaning of the term “related” to a dispute over insurance coverage).” But with the way the prior acts exclusion was worded it’s hard to understand why that would make a difference. The act and omission and “Related Act or Omission” addressed by the prior acts exclusion were all described as before the retro-date. The exclusion thus didn’t explicitly address the relationship of pre- and post-retro date wrongful acts. That made no difference here. But it might in another case. So an insurer with a prior acts exclusion like this would be well-advised to revise it.

Tags: Georgia, professional liability, prior acts exclusion, interrelated or related wrongful acts

Category: D&O Digest, Lawyers Malpractice Digest, Professional Liability Insurance Digest Comment »


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