2860 Fee Arbitration is Denied Where Insurer is Not Currently Defending

In The Housing Group v. PMA Capital Insurance Co., 2011 DJDAR 4441 (2011), the California First District, Court of Appeal decided a case arising under California Civil Code § 2860

This section of the civil code provides for arbitration of disputes under California’s so called Cumis doctrine. That statute sets forth the rules for selection of “independent counsel” when the carrier reserves its rights creating a potential conflict between the carrier, its selected counsel and the insured.

The Housing Group (Plaintiffs) filed suit against their insurer, PMA Capital Insurance Co. (the “insurer”). The Plaintiffs sued the insurer for breach of contract and alleged “bad faith” arising out of liability in third‑party actions relating to construction projects.

The insurer petitioned to compel arbitration of an alleged fee dispute pursuant to Civil Code Section 2860(c), contending the action involved disputes regarding the applicable fee to be paid to the Plaintiffs’ independent counsel by the insurer incurred in the underlying litigation.

The Plaintiffs opposed the petition. Plaintiffs argued that the insurer had no standing to invoke the provisions of Section 2860(c) because it failed to prove that it had agreed to defend the case or make any payments to the defense costs incurred. The trial court denied the petition to compel arbitration.

The insurer appealed and the court of appeal affirmed the decision of the trial court. The court noted that where an insurer defends a case under a reservation of rights and has agreed to utilize independent counsel, an insurer may compel arbitration to resolve a dispute regarding the payment of defense fees pursuant to Section  2860(c).

The court noted that there was no evidence in the record that the insurer defended the case. The insurer did send two reservation of rights letters.  However, the letters only expressed a future intent to defend, rather than an actual agreement to provide a defense or to pay defense costs.

The court of appeal concluded that an agreement to the payment of defense fees at the end of the litigation was not sufficient to trigger the provisions of Section 2860.

Improper Claim Brought by Trust Beneficiaries Can be Remedied Through an Attorney Fee Award Rendered Under the Equitable Power of the Probate Court

 In Rudnick v. Rudnick, 2009 DJDAR 16944 (2009) the Fifth Appellate District decided a novel case involving an attorney fee award in the probate context. The court of appeal affirmed the lower court’s decision granting fees and deducting them from future distributions to certain minority beneficiaries who maintained litigation against a trust in bad faith.

Philip Rudnick, Robert Rudnick, and Milton Rudnick (“Beneficiaries”) were beneficiaries of a Trust. Oscar Rudnick (“Trustee”) was the trustee. The majority of the trust beneficiaries approved the sale of the trust’s principal asset, a large acreage piece of real property. The Trustee petitioned the probate court requesting approval of both the sale and the proposed distribution. The Beneficiaries, who held a minority interest, opposed the petition.

After hearings, the probate court came to the conclusion that the opposition submitted by the Beneficiaries was submitted in bad faith and was solely designed to delay distribution of the sale proceeds. The court awarded approximately $226,000 in attorney fees and costs to the trustee and ordered that the fees were to be deducted against the Beneficiaries future trust distributions. The Beneficiaries then appealed.

The court of appeal affirmed the ruling of the trial court noting that the probate court had the equitable power to make the disputed award. The court distinguished between an award of fees rendered pursuant to the supervisory powers of the court versus the broad equitable powers that a probate court maintains over trusts within its jurisdiction. The court noted that attorneys hired by a trustee to aid the trust are entitled to reasonable fees paid from the trust assets. The issue was whether the burden was improperly shifted to the appellants’ share of the estate. The court found that it was not.

The probate court charged the attorney fees to the appellants’ future trust distributions.  The court of appeal agreed with the result noting that it would be unfair to burden the majority beneficiaries with the payment of the fees that were incurred in responding to the appellants’ bad faith tactics in filing a meritless opposition.