A recent federal district court decision dismissing a putative class action complaint against AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company may portend trouble for plaintiffs pursuing a number of similar so-called "shadow insurance" cases against New York insurers based on allegedly sham reinsurance transactions with affiliated (or "captive") reinsurers.
The plaintiffs in Ross v. AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company, alleged that AXA Equitable violated New York Insurance Law Section 4226 by failing to disclose or inadequately disclosing in its filed financial statements the details of transactions in which the insurer ceded billions of dollars in life insurance liabilities to captive reinsurers, purportedly without genuinely transferring the risks. Plaintiffs contended that these "shadow" insurance transactions artificially inflated AXA’s surplus and risk-based capital ratio (a critical measure of an insurer’s financial health for regulators and analysts), making the company appear more financially healthy than warranted. Plaintiffs asserted that they suffered injury by paying premiums for policies that were less financially secure than represented.
The district court dismissed the second amended complaint because plaintiffs failed to allege an "injury-in-fact" required for standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution—"the invasion of a legally protected interest which is … concrete and particularized and actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical." The court pointed out that the named plaintiffs did not allege that the challenged transactions caused them to pay higher premiums or that they relied on the company’s annual filings in deciding to purchase the policies. And plaintiffs’ allegation that the policies were less secure articulated a future risk of nonpayment that was "too hypothetical, speculative, and uncertain" to meet Article III’s standing requirements.
The court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that an alleged violation of a statutory right under New York law to "truthful financial reporting" could alone confer standing in a federal court. The court observed that plaintiffs cited no authority that a state legislature could "confer Article III standing on a plaintiff who suffers no concrete harm merely by authorizing a private right of action based on a bare violation of a state statute," even accepting the soundness of arguably questionable authority that the U.S. Congress may do so.