For many years, the prevailing view of Alaska law was that an insurer could obtain reimbursement of defense costs from an insured if it specifically reserved the right to seek reimbursement and subsequently obtained a determination of no coverage. This understanding was based on Unionamerica Inc. Co., Ltd. v. General Star Indem. Co., 2005 WL 757386 (D. Alaska 2005), in which the Alaska federal district court predicted that the Alaska Supreme Court would allow insurers to recover defense costs. It turns out, however, that the district court’s prediction was incorrect.
In Attorneys Liability Protection Society, Inc. v. Ingaldson Fitzgerald, P.C., No. 7095 (March 25, 2016), the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a policy provision entitling an insurer to reimbursement of fees and costs incurred by the insurer defending under a reservation of rights is unenforceable, even if (1) the insurer explicitly reserves the right to seek reimbursement in its offer to provide a defense by an independent counsel, (2) the insured accepts the defense subject to the reservation of rights, and (3) the claims are subsequently determined to be excluded from coverage under the policy.
Attorneys Liability Protection Society, Inc. (“ALPS”) issued a malpractice insurance policy to Ingaldson & Fitzgerald, P.C. (“IF”) from April 29, 2007 to April 29, 2008. The policy contained a provision that entitled ALPS to seek reimbursement for amounts paid by ALPS in defending non-covered claims.
During the policy period, IF reported to ALPS a lawsuit against it alleging, among other things, restitution, disgorgement, and conversion for recovery of a retainer that had been paid to IF. ALPS accepted IF’s tender but reserved rights because the policy excluded coverage for claims arising from conversion or fee disputes. ALPS retained independent counsel to defend IF and paid all defense costs in full, as required by AS 21.96.100.
In the underlying case, summary judgment was rendered against IF on claims of restitution, disgorgement and conversion, all of which were specifically excluded under the malpractice policy. Thereafter, ALPS commenced a declaratory judgment action against IF and moved for partial summary judgment on the reimbursement of defense costs issue. In denying the motion, the district court declined to follow the Unionamerica case and held that Alaska law prohibits the inclusion of a right to reimbursement in insurance policies under AS 21.89.100(d), which states, in part, that in providing independent counsel, an insurer “shall be responsible only for the fees and costs to defend those allegations for which the insurer either reserves its position as to coverage or accepts coverage.”
ALPS appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit noted that while AS 21.96.100(d) requires the insurer to pay defense costs if it either covers the claims against its insured or defends pursuant to a reservation of rights, the statute is not clear as to whether the insurer can later seek reimbursement of fees assumed under a reservation of rights under these circumstances. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit certified two questions to the Alaska Supreme Court:
- Does Alaska law prohibit enforcement of a policy provision entitling an insurer to reimbursement of fees and costs incurred by the insurer defending claims under a reservation of rights, where (1) the insurer explicitly reserved the right to seek such reimbursement in its offer to tender a defense provided by independent counsel, (2) the insured accepted the defense subject to the reservation of rights, and (3) the claims are later determined to be excluded from coverage under the policy?
- If the answer to Question 1 is “Yes,” does Alaska law prohibit enforcement of a policy provision entitling an insurer to reimbursement of fees and costs incurred by the insurer defending claims under a reservation of rights, where (1) the insurer explicitly reserved the right to seek such reimbursement in its offer to tender a defense provided by independent counsel, (2) the insured accepted the defense subject to the reservation of rights, and (3) it is later determined that the duty to defend never arose under the policy because there was no possibility of coverage?
In answering both questions with “YES,” the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that AS 21.96.100 renders any defense costs reimbursement provisions in insurance policies unenforceable.
The Alaska Supreme Court first acknowledged that under Alaska case law, an insured has a right to demand an unconditional defense. To meet this right, the insurer has three options: (1) affirm the policy and defend unconditionally; (2) repudiate the policy and withdraw from the defense; or (3) offer its insured the right to retain independent counsel to conduct the defense and agree to pay all the necessary costs of that defense. CHI of Alaska, Inc. v. Employers Reinsurance Corp., 844 P.2d 1113 (1993); Continental Ins. Co. v. Bayless & Roberts, Inc., 608 P.2d 281 (1980). The Court continued that AS 21.96.100 is the codification of such requirements.
In examining the statutory text, the Alaska Supreme Court noted that the subsections (a) through (d) focus on the mandatory requirement that insurers pay for the cost of independent counsel. The Court noted that the statute clearly allocates to the insurer the responsibility to pay the fees and costs when an insurer provides independent counsel to the insured. Therefore, any effort to shift such expenses to an insured would violate the allocation that the statute requires and would be invalid. In short, there is nothing in AS 21.96.100 that permits reimbursement, so the Court concluded that the statutory scheme prohibits reimbursement. The Court held that “reimbursement is prohibited, and because there is no evidence of contrary legislative purpose or intent, we conclude that the statute prohibits reimbursement provisions.”
In ruling that reimbursement provisions are unenforceable, the Alaska Supreme Court declined to follow the California case of Buss v. Superior Court, 939 P.2d 766 (1997). First, the Court noted that the California statute does not contain language similar to that in AS 21.96.100(d). Second, the California statute actually provides a section on reimbursement, which states that “[t]his subdivision does not invalidate other different or additional policy provisions pertaining to attorney’s fees or providing for methods of settlement of disputes concerning those fees.”
The Court further noted that the legislative history supports its conclusion that the statute allocates responsibility to pay for independent counsel to the insurer when the insurer defends under a reservation of rights. Finally, the Court acknowledged that even though the Division of Insurance had approved the policies containing the reimbursement provision, the Division’s past practice is not dispositive. More importantly, however, the Division had disavowed its past practice in its amicus brief with a more “considered interpretation” that “under AS 21.96.100, if an insurer has a duty to defend and elects to reserve its rights on an issue, it is obligated to provide and pay for independent counsel.”
So insurers beware – reimbursement of defense costs provisions are prohibited and unenforceable in Alaska.