UNIVERSAL MORTGAGE CORP. v. WURTTEMBERGISCHE VERSIGHERUNG AG (July 11, 2011)

Ray Hightower worked for Universal Mortgage Corp., a company that originated mortgage loans and sold them to investors. When Universal sold the loans, it warranted that the loans complied with the Federal National Mortgage Corporation standards. For over a year, Hightower took kickbacks from an outside broker in return for ensuring that Universal approved non-compliant loans. Universal sold the loans without knowledge of their non-compliant status. Some of the loans went into default. When those investors realized that Universal had breached its compliance warranty, they exercised their rights to force Universal to repurchase the loans. Universal estimates that its exposure will be $4.5 million. Universal filed a claim under its bankers blanket bond issued by a consortium of Lloyds of London underwriters. The bond indemnified Universal for "[d]irect financial loss" it suffered "by reason of and directly caused by . . . dishonest acts by any Employee." The bond also excluded any loss "resulting from" a loan repurchase from an investor. The underwriters denied the claim. Universal brought suit for breach of contract and bad faith denial of an insurance claim. Judge Stadtmueller (E.D. Wis.) granted a motion to dismiss, concluding that Hightower's fraud did not "directly cause" the loss and that the repurchase exclusion applied. Universal appeals.

In their opinion, Judges Posner, Flaum, and Sykes affirmed. The Court noted that the bond form has been around for decades and that many of its terms have well-established meanings. But two camps have emerged on the proper meaning of "directly cause." One camp has adopted the proximate cause principle from tort law. But this case is governed by Wisconsin law, and Wisconsin has adopted a "direct means direct" definition of "directly cause." Here, Universal's liability is to a third party. Even if its loss from that liability is due to employee misconduct, the employee misconduct did not "directly cause" the loss. The Court rejected Universal’s argument that its loss arose when it initially approved the non-compliant loans. Even if it did, it recovered that loss when it sold the loans to investors. The loss it now seeks to recover is the loss from its obligation to those investors. Alternatively, the Court agreed with the district court that the repurchase exclusion applied and barred coverage.