November 12, 2018
A recent Law 360 article by Susan P. White, “Challenge Calif. Insurer Limits on Independent Counsel Rates,” reports on hourly rates and independent counsel in insurance coverage litigation in California. Susan P. White is a partner at Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP in Los Angeles. This article was posted with permission. The article reads:
When a liability insurer agrees to defend its insured after the insured has been sued, this is often cause for celebration, as the insured believes its defense will be paid. The insurer may reserve its rights to deny coverage, and advise that such reservation creates a “conflict of interest” entitling the insured to “independent” counsel. Thus, instead of the insurer selecting the insured’s defense counsel, which is common under a duty to defend policy, the insured gets to choose its own counsel. Still reason to celebrate, right? But, as you may suspect, this selection right comes with a catch. The insurer advises that while the insured can choose its own counsel, the insurer only agrees to pay a very low hourly rate, maybe $225 or $250 per hour (it varies, sometimes dramatically so), which is much less than what is being charged by the insured’s independent counsel. If the litigation against the insured is significant, the delta between the rate the insurer agrees to pay and counsel’s actual rate can add up to millions of dollars.
An insurer claims it need only pay these low hourly rates pursuant to the requirements set forth in California Civil Code section 2860(c), which governs the financial relationship between an insurer and an insured’s independent counsel. Section 2860(c) states:
The insurer’s obligation to pay fees to the independent counsel selected by the insured is limited to the rates which are actually paid by the insurer to attorneys retained by it in the ordinary course of business in the defense of similar actions in the community where the claim arose or is being defended.
While section 2860(c) allows an insurer to only pay independent counsel the same rates it pays to other lawyers to defend similar actions in the same locale, an insured should not simply accept the insurer’s say so on this. There are several ways to both challenge an insurer’s unilaterally imposed rates. This article addresses a few such ways.
First, an insured should demand that the insurer produce detailed information about the counsel to whom it is paying these low rates. An insurer often imposes “panel counsel rates” in these situations, which are rates that an insurer pays to certain law firms that have special agreements with the insurer, often in writing. In these agreements, the panel counsel often agree to charge the insurer reduced hourly rates, regardless of the type of case, or location of the litigation, typically in exchange for the anticipation of a large volume of work from the insurer. Under such a situation, an insured can argue that there is no “similarity” of actions as mandated by the statute. Instead, the panel counsel’s rates are unaffected by the complexity, sophistication, nature of the allegations, legal claims, factual circumstances, location or any other factors of the cases in which they are appointed. Thus, such rates provide no support under the § 2860 requirements.
Second, an insured should demand that the insurer provide detailed information about the specific cases that the insurer is touting as “similar actions in the community where the claim arose or is being defended,” to support the low hourly rates imposed. With this information, an insured can ascertain whether such cases are, in fact, “similar” or not. For example, are these purported “similar” actions less complex than the lawsuit against the insured? Do they involve different legal and/or factual issues? What about the amounts in controversy — are they dramatically less and thus, the exposure potentials are not even comparable? Also, where are these other actions pending? Are they in different communities? The more an insured can demonstrate dissimilarities the better to demonstrate that the insurer cannot support the hourly rate it seeks to impose pursuant to § 2860.
Third, if the parties cannot informally agree on an acceptable hourly rate for independent counsel, either party can seek to resolve the dispute through final and binding arbitration pursuant to § 2860. And, in any arbitration, if the arbitrator determines that insurer’s evidence does not satisfy the § 2860 requirements, the insured should argue that a “reasonableness” standard should be applied to determine the appropriate rate for the insured’s independent counsel (with evidence to support that independent counsel’s actual rates are “reasonable”). Indeed, a “reasonableness” standard is a ubiquitous standard for attorneys’ fees in insurance litigation and other contexts.
An insured need not simply accept its insurer’s word when it imposes inappropriately low hourly rates on an insured’s independent counsel. Instead, an insured should challenge such rates, when appropriate, either informally or in arbitration.
Susan P. White is a partner at Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP in Los Angeles. Susan resolves complex insurance coverage disputes through litigation, arbitration and mediation. These include bad faith claims, as well as other commercial and contract matters. She has also successfully recovered millions in attorneys’ fees and costs for her insured clients.