Seyfarth Synopsis: The 9th Circuit confirmed that an EPAs request for information letter investigating a Superfund cleanup site is a “suit” triggering an insurer’s duty to defend.

This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court decision that an information request issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in connection with an investigation into a Superfund cleanup site is a “suit” triggering an insurer’s duty to defend. Ash Grove Cement Company v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, et al., Nos. 13-35900, 13-35905, and 14-35298 (9th Cir. May 11, 2016).

In the underlying case, Ash Grove received an information request from the EPA pursuant to section 104(e) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. § 9604(e) (104(e) letter), about contamination at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. Ash Grove promptly forwarded the 104(e) letter to its insurers.

In briefing, the insurers argued that the 104(e) letter was not a “suit” under Oregon law. The Ninth Circuit, though, had previously held that a 104(e) letter is a “coercive information demand” that is “an attempt to gain an end through legal process,” and was therefore a “suit” under Oregon law. Anderson Bros., Inc. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 729 F.3d 923, 932-33, 935 (9th Cir. 2013). The Court also rejected the insurers’ argument that the intention of the parties could not have been to treat a 104(e) letter as a “suit,” because the policies distinguished between a “claim” and a “suit.” Id. at 933-34. In addition, the Court addressed and rejected the insurers’ contention that a 104(e) letter cannot constitute a “suit” because it does not require that an “insured take action with respect to contamination within the State of Oregon.” Id. at 934-35.

Finally, the insurers argued, even if the 104(e) letter constituted a suit, their duty to defend ceased after Ash Grove submitted its response to the letter. The Court disagreed, noting that Oregon law provides that the duty “continue[s] as to each unit [of property] until the Record of Decision for that unit [i]s filed.” Schnitzer Inv. Corp. v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s of London, 104 P.3d 1162, 1169 (Or. Ct. App. 2005), aff’d, 137 P.3d 1282 (Or. 2006).