Florida Supreme Court Invited to Resolve Assignment-Of-Benefits Controversy

Michael Morehead | Property Insurance Law Observer | December 5, 2018

Introduction

At least two Florida appellate courts have directly contradicted each other on an increasingly-important question facing Floridians and the insurance industry. The question is as follows: “Are insurance provisions valid which condition the validity of third-party benefits assignments upon the written consent of all insureds and named property mortgagees?” The answer to this question is important because Floridian policyholders often assign their insurance rights to construction companies post-loss to receive services without up-front payment. The Florida Supreme Court was recently asked to answer this important question, and it is likely to weigh in, although it has not yet formally decided to do so.

Public Policy

Public policy concerns animate assignment-of-benefits (“AOB”) legal disputes in Florida. Florida construction companies and policy-holder attorneys argue that AOB is good for policy-holders because it allows them to immediately repair damaged property. However, insurance advocates contend that certain AOB limitations are necessary to mitigate abuse, fraud, needless litigation, and ultimately to minimize insurance premiums to policyholders.

A 2016 Insurance Journal article explained that unscrupulous contractors often obtain AOBs, submit inflated repair-cost claims to insurers, and then work closely with “highly litigious” trial groups to sue the insurers for denying these claims, whether in whole or in part. Amy O’Connor, Florida Fights Back Against Assignment of Benefits Abuse, Insurance Journal (Feb. 8, 2016). A 2018 article indicates that as a result, the number of AOB lawsuits in Florida has been “spiraling out of control,” from 405 lawsuits in 2007 to 28,000 lawsuits in 2016—a “68-fold increase.” Liam Sigaud, Florida Insurance Abuse Spiraling Out of Control, Pensacola News Journal (March 14, 2018).

Thus, the legal AOB controversy currently taking place in Florida is the tip of a much larger public policy iceberg. Because of the breadth and depth of the public policy considerations at play, even those Florida courts which have taken a side have done so on purely legal grounds, recognizing that the complex policy considerations are best addressed by the Florida Legislature. Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature has repeatedly tried yet been unable to resolve the present dispute.

Florida Appellate Courts are Split

Three of the five Florida District Courts of Appeal have weighed in on the validity of AOB conditions requiring the written consent of all insureds and named property mortgagees. The Second Florida District Court of Appeal (“Second District”) upheld the enforcement of such conditions without comment. See Biologic, Inc. a/a/0 Elizabeth Morgan v. ASI Preferred Ins. Corp., 238 So. 3d 769 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2017). The Fourth Florida District Court of Appeal (“Fourth District”) upheld the validity of such conditions with detailed analysis. See Restoration 1 of Port St. Lucie v. Ark Royal Ins. Co., 2018 WL 4211750, at *1 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2018). Finally, the Fifth Florida District Court of Appeal (“Fifth District”) has twice held such conditions to be invalid under age-old Florida common law. Sec. First Ins. Co. v. Florida Office of Ins. Regulation, 232 So. 3d 1157, 1160 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2017); Restoration 1 CFL, LLC v. ASI Preferred Ins. Corp., 239 So. 3d 747 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2018).

In invalidating the aforementioned AOB consent requirements, the Fifth District cited a 1917 Florida Supreme Court decision for the very general proposition that “it is a well-settled rule that [anti-assignment provisions do] not apply to an assignment after loss.” Sec. First Ins. Co., 232 So. 3d at 1158 (quoting from W. Florida Grocery Co. v. Teutonia Fire Ins. Co., 77 So. 209, 210–11 (1917)). However, the Fourth District subsequently disagreed, holding that the Fifth District overgeneralized the Teutonia Fire rule, which invalided a clause requiring the insurer to consent to third-party benefits assignments, not other insureds and property mortgagees. Ark Royal Ins. Co., 2018 WL 4211750, at *3.

AOB consent from an insurer constituted a needless restraint on the insured’s right to assign benefits because the insurer had no interest in the assignment. Id. Thus, the insurer-consent requirement was “superfluous.” Id. In contrast, says the Fourth District, requiring the consent of other insureds and named mortgagees is not superfluous because they have a “a vested interest that a reputable, legitimate third-party contractor perform repairs on the home.” Id. The Fourth District recognized that freedom of contract may be limited where it would impose “great prejudice to the dominant public interest,” but declined to find any such prejudice because “[t]he contract here does not prohibit assignment—it imposes a condition, requiring the approval of all insureds and the mortgagee.” Id. at 4.

In sum, the Fourth and Fifth Circuit’s disagreement stems from differing opinions about the scope of the Teutonia Fire rule. Noting this conflict, the Fourth Circuit “certify[ied] conflict” for purposes of appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Id.

The Issue Has Been Appealed to the Florida Supreme Court

Interestingly, the Fourth District’s opinion was appealed by the underlying winner—Ark Royal Insurance Company. In mid-October 2018, the loser, Restoration 1 agreed with Ark Royal that the Florida Supreme Court should take up the case to provide unity in Florida on the issue. The Florida Supreme Court has not yet determined whether to take up the appeal, although the circumstances suggest that it is likely to do so. Indeed, a former Associate Justice—Ken Bell—recently authored an article indicating that the Florida Supreme Court should and will take up the appeal and side with the Fourth District. Ken Bell, AOB Issue Finally Headed to Florida’s Supreme Court, Insurance Business America (Oct. 11, 2018).

Importantly, the seven-member Florida Supreme Court is about to change significantly. Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince will be leaving the court in January 2019, having reached the applicable state judicial age limit. Lloyd Dunkelberger, Florida Supreme Court direction hinges on governor’s race, Orlando Weekly (October 23, 2018). These justices are considered to be policy-holder friendly. Newly-appointed Republican Governor Rick Scott, who will take office in January 2019, has the power to make new appointments. Id. The AOB appeal, which was filed in late September 2018, will likely be decided after this seismic judicial shift takes place. These changes are likely to work in favor of insurers with regard to the AOB appeal.

Takeaway

Until the Florida Supreme Court resolves the present AOB debacle, the law is likely to be treated in a piecemeal fashion across the state, depending upon where suit is filed. Cases filed in the Fifth District are subject to binding Fifth District precedent, and insurer/mortgagee-consent requirements will likely be found invalid. Insurers in these jurisdictions cannot rely upon insurer/mortgagee-consent failures to function as a proper basis for denial and to shield them from liability. The relevant counties in which this is the case are as follows: Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Sumter, Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, Volusia, Orange, Osceola, Brevard and Seminole.

The opposite is true in the Fourth District. Insurers can rely upon insurer/mortgagee-consent failures to function as a proper basis for denial of a claim by the assignee, as well as to shield them from liability that would otherwise flow from such a denial. The counties in which this is the case are as follows: Palm Beach, Broward, Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie. In this regard, the Fourth District’s approach is arguably more important than the Fifth District’s approach, as the majority of AOB abuse is concentrated in Southern Florida.

Insurer’s should tread carefully in the Second District, including the following counties: Pasco, Pinellas, Hardee, Highlands, Polk, DeSoto, Manatee, Sarasota, Hillsborough, Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee. Although one Second District opinion enforced an insurer/mortgagee-consent requirement, it did so without comment. Because it did not reason out its judgment, it is very difficult to gauge the Second District’s commitment to the position it has so far taken. Nevertheless, applicable case law favors the validity of insurer/mortgagee-consent requirements in Second District counties.

Contractors Versus the Insurance industry—AOB’s Are Under Attack

Chip Merlin | Property Insurance Coverage Law Blog | December 3, 2018

The National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters held its mid-year meeting last week and the topic of assignment of benefits, commonly referred to as AOB’s, was on the agenda. Lisa Miller, an insurance lobbyist and regulator I have come across for over twenty-five years was the speaker on the topic.

Miller is a very bright and an excellent communicator. When Lisa Miller speaks about what the insurance industry has on its legislative agenda, I listen carefully. I would suggest Florida roofers and contractors do so as well. Here is a little about her background:

As a former deputy insurance commissioner, Lisa represents and advises property insurance companies representing 25% of Florida’s six million personal and commercial residential policies. She served as lead advisor to Florida’s Property and Casualty Insurance Fraud Task Force and serves as regulatory consultant to investors who are entering Florida’s insurance market. Lisa is the exclusive insurance lobbyist and technical consultant for the Florida Realtors association with 140,000 members in all Florida counties.

She made several points about AOB’s which my notes reflect as follows:

  1. AOB’s were not historically required for restoration contractors to get paid by insurance companies. They are a recent phenomenon being promoted by a small group of law firms to the restoration insurance industry.
  2. AOB’s have led to a significant increase in first party property insurance lawsuits. She showed me statistics after her speech which indicated at least a quarter of all first party property insurance lawsuits are being brought by restoration contractors and roofers.
  3. Premiums are rising as insurance companies face many needless lawsuits. She claims she has many examples of lawsuits being “leveraged” by the restoration contractors and their lawyers to pay amounts greater than what is legitimately owed. She has examples of some law firms who do shoddy legal work or who represent contractors with repetitive shoddy construction practices.
  4. AOB’s allow some contractors to rip off policyholders duped into the belief they will get quick quality work done and a quick claims handling by the contractor. Instead, those policyholders find they get no or little work done and are outside parties to a lawsuit owned by the contractor and their lawyers. I expect that she will have a number of policyholders testify about this occurrence at upcoming hearings in the Florida legislature.
  5. The Florida Attorney’s Fees statute protecting policyholders was never intended to protect parties not part of the insurance contract.

Here is what she says, in part, on the topic in her blog:

The hustle is real and it’s happening every day in Florida.

Under an Assignment of Benefits (AOB) contract, unsuspecting homeowners are being duped into signing away all their insurance policy rights to a third-party repair or renovation contractor. When the contractor submits their often inflated claim to the insurance company and the insurer refuses to pay it – the contractor sues, aided by lawyers able to game Florida’s one-way attorney fees and bad faith laws to collect all their attorney fees.

It’s a vicious and costly game, where insurance companies settle frivolous lawsuits only because it’s cheaper than going to trial. AOB abuse has created an additional $1 billion of inflated insurance claims over recent years – costs eventually passed along to all homeowners through higher rates. And the problem is getting worse.

Last year, I went to Tallahassee to speak with legislators about this issue and even ended up testifying about this and other issues. In Tallahassee, I also met with several longstanding and reputable restoration contractors about all the hassles they now have with insurance companies which did not exist fifteen years ago. I agree. The insurance industry property claims departments have changed a lot since I started working in this field in 1981. Computers and big data drive claims processes with many claims processes all geared towards one goal—pay less on claims. There is a war going on in the field between restoration contractors and the property insurance claims industry. We see it every day and for every alleged “bad” example by restoration contractors, I and other Merlin Law Group attorneys are told horrendous stories by former insurance adjusters of how they are forced to underpay claims.

Our firm does represent contractors. We are not one of those mill law firms that teaches gamesmanship to contractors about how to leverage AOB’s so that insurers are in a no-win situation. A number of my attorney colleagues that do so are also horrible litigators and have had numerous significant sanctions against them. Those instances will be used by Lisa Miller and the insurance industry in their fight against AOB’s.

A number of public adjusting firms actually represent restoration contractors. Yet, other public adjusters are furious with the restoration industry and have provided me factual instances of those contractors working with those same shoddy attorneys as runners. Whether the newly elected Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody or local state prosecutors will do something about these actions wait to be seen. To the extent they are prosecuted or indicted, I can guarantee those instances will also be shown by Lisa Miller and the insurance lobby as a need for AOB reform.

How all this will play out is anybody’s guess. But, the sweeping Republican victory does not bode well for the restoration construction industry and the future of AOBs in Florida. The insurance industry is in bed with Florida Republican leaders who have stated that AOB reform is a priority for them.

I hope those republicans and other leaders remember how important it is to support reputable contractors to get paid to do a first-rate job. Cheap, illegal and improper construction is easy to do and hide—at least for a while. I made the following comment last week and believe those making public policy should reflect on it and allow good contractors a means to enforce their ability to make a living against an insurance industry hell bent on reducing claims payments anyway they can:

Contractors are a core group that help restore our communities after catastrophes. Those contractors that come from far away communities and do quality work just as they do in their own communities are very important because there is no way local contractors can do all the work demanded following a large scale catastrophe. Professional restoration contractors that build with quality methods, materials, and pursuant to all local building codes are not the enemy and should be congratulated for their entrepreneurialism and willingness to work a long way from friends and families.

I really do not like going to Tallahassee in the winter and watch legislation being made. It is like watching sausage being made, at best. But, it looks like Tallahassee will be an inevitable place for me, again. I would suggest those good and reputable Florida restoration contractors and roofers prepare for a fight because you have one on your hands.

Thought For The Day

The American legislative process isn’t well suited to large and complex measures.
—George J. Mitchell