Tag Archives: counterclaim

An Overlooked Attorney Fee Statute in Oregon

Companies doing business in Oregon should be aware of ORS 20.080, which can provide for attorney fees in cases seeking damages of $10,000 or less.  That statute provides that prevailing plaintiffs may be awarded attorney fees. It is important to be aware that, in ORS 20.080 cases seeking compensatory damages of $10,000 or less, the attorney fees can quickly approach or outstrip the compensatory damages.

This article will explore three key questions that clients generally have when defending against an ORS 20.080 case: 1) How does the plaintiff receive attorney fees?; 2) Do courts require plaintiffs to strictly comply with ORS 20.080?; and 3) How can defendants escape attorney fees in ORS 20.080 cases?

1. How Does the Plaintiff Receive Attorney Fees Under ORS 20.080?

Generally, a plaintiff has a claim for attorney fees under ORS 20.080 if the plaintiff: gives the defendant notice of a claim for $10,000 or less at least 30 days before the plaintiff files a lawsuit; provides enough documentation for the defendant to generally value the claim; and was awarded more at trial or arbitration than the defendant offered before the plaintiff filed the lawsuit. 

ORS 20.080 provides that:

“(1) In any action for damages for an injury or wrong to the person or property, or both, of another where the amount pleaded is $10,000 or less, and the plaintiff prevails in the action, there shall be taxed and allowed to the plaintiff, at trial and on appeal, a reasonable amount to be fixed by the court as attorney fees for the prosecution of the action, if the court finds that written demand for the payment of such claim was made on the defendant, and on the defendant's insurer, if known to the plaintiff, not less than 30 days before the commencement of the action or the filing of a formal complaint under ORS 46.465, or not more than 30 days after the transfer of the action under ORS 46.461. However, no attorney fees shall be allowed to the plaintiff if the court finds that the defendant tendered to the plaintiff, prior to the commencement of the action or the filing of a formal complaint under ORS 46.465, or not more than 30 days after the transfer of the action under ORS 46.461, an amount not less than the damages awarded to the plaintiff.

“(2) If the defendant pleads a counterclaim, not to exceed $10,000, and the defendant prevails in the action, there shall be taxed and allowed to the defendant, at trial and on appeal, a reasonable amount to be fixed by the court as attorney fees for the prosecution of the counterclaim.

“(3) A written demand for the payment of damages under this section must include the following information, if the information is in the plaintiff's possession or reasonably available to the plaintiff at the time the demand is made:

“(a) In an action for an injury or wrong to a person, a copy of medical records and bills for medical treatment adequate to reasonably inform the person receiving the written demand of the nature and scope of the injury claimed; or

“(b) In an action for damage to property, documentation of the repair of the property, a written estimate for the repair of the property or a written estimate of the difference in the value of the property before the damage and the value of the property after the damage.

“(4) If after making a demand under this section, and before commencing an action, a plaintiff acquires any additional information described in subsection (3) of this section that was not provided with the demand, the plaintiff must provide that information to the defendant, and to the defendant's insurer, if known to the plaintiff, as soon as possible after the information becomes available to the plaintiff.

“(5) A plaintiff may not recover attorney fees under this section if the plaintiff does not comply with the requirements of subsections (3) and (4) of this section.

“(6) The provisions of this section do not apply to any action based on contract.”

2. Do Courts Require Plaintiffs to Strictly Comply With ORS 20.080?

The short answer is no.  Although ORS 20.080 requires that plaintiffs make their demands in writing to the defendant AND the defendant’s insurer, if known, courts generally do not require plaintiffs to strictly comply with this portion of the statute.  Under Schwartzkopf v. Shannon the Cannon’s Window & Other Works, Inc., 166 Or App 466, 471, 998 P2d 244 (2000), a person may act as an agent for the defendant (and therefore may be considered “the defendant”) for purposes of ORS 20.080 if that person has authority to defend or settle a claim for the defendant.  Under Schwartzkopf, trial court judges have allowed plaintiff’s lawyers to provide notice to the defendant’s insurer without providing notice to the defendant, even though the plain language of ORS 20.080 requires that the plaintiff provide notice to both.  In these kinds of cases, the insurer has usually already engaged in some kind of negotiations for the defendant or has gathered facts for and on behalf of the defendant, giving the plaintiff evidence of agency.  Therefore, under ORS 20.080 and Schwartzkopf, if the insurer is the only person who receives a demand, practically and generally speaking, the insurer should treat that demand as sufficient notice as long as it was made at least 30 days before plaintiff filed the lawsuit.

Courts do generally require plaintiffs to send any additional written information that the demand would include, such as additional medical bills, to the defendant (or the defendant’s insurer) as soon as possible if the plaintiff obtains such information after the plaintiff has made her written 20.080 demand and before she has filed the lawsuit.

However, in the initial written demand, courts generally give plaintiffs leeway and, as long as the plaintiff has provided the defendant with enough documentation to generally value the claim, the plaintiff generally does not have to strictly comply with the statute and provide all of the documentation “reasonably available at to the plaintiff at the time.”  For example, if you are provided with an ORS 20.080 notice from a plaintiff’s lawyer that includes most of the medical records and bills but does not include copies of the x-rays, a trial judge will generally hold that the plaintiff’s lawyer substantially complied with ORS 20.080 and that the claim may proceed.

3. How Can Defendants Escape Attorney Fees in ORS 20.080 Cases?

The only way the defendant can escape attorney fees in ORS 20.080 cases is if the defendant makes an offer to the plaintiff before the lawsuit is filed that is more than the damages ultimately awarded to the plaintiff. In other words, if the plaintiff recovers $5,000, but the defendant offered $3,000 before the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiff gets her attorney fees.  If the plaintiff recovers $5,000, but the defendant offered $8,000 before the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiff does not receive her attorney fees.

If the lawsuit is filed and the defendant has a counterclaim of up to $10,000 and the defendant prevails in the lawsuit, the defendant gets its reasonable attorney fees.  What is “reasonable” is decided by the court.

In Oregon, it is important to notify your attorney right away after receipt of an ORS 20.080 letter to ensure that you strategize appropriately.  Although it may seem unpalatable, generally the best strategy is for defendant to make its best offer first, to minimize the risk of an award in excess of the offer and exposure to attorney fees. Many times, lawyers don’t receive cases until the lawsuit is filed and, in ORS 20.080 cases, that is usually too late; the plaintiff’s attorney fee claim is already in play.

Deny Defense And Lose The Right To Belatedly Control Defense

An Insurer Should Never Deny A Defense Unless Absolutely Certain There Is No Potential For Coverage

The District Court, Northern District of California, granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of KB Home in part against the Travelers in Kaufman & Broad Monterey Bay, et v. Travelers Property Casualty, No. : 5:10-CV-2856 EJD (N.D.Cal. 07/18/2012)

Background
Travelers issued commercial general liability policies to Norcraft Companies, L.P., (“Norcraft”) a cabinet installer. The Norcraft policies provide coverage for “property damage” arising out of an occurrence that takes place in the coverage territory and that occurs during the policy period.

Subcontract And Aldrich Action
On or about January 22, 2003, and February 5, 2003, KB Home and Norcraft entered into subcontracts to furnish, deliver and install cabinets at certain homes within two housing developments in Monterey, California. The subcontracts required Norcraft to name KB Home as an additional insured under its commercial general liability policies.

On October 21, 2008, a number of homeowners commenced a lawsuit in Monterey County Superior Court against KB Home, Aldrich, et al. v. KB Home, et al. (“Aldrich Action”). The homeowners alleged a number of construction defects, including “cabinet and wood trim” defects, that resulted in damage to the homes and their component parts.

KB Home filed a cross-complaint against various parties, including Norcraft, alleging among other things that Norcraft is contractually required to defend and indemnify KB Home with regard to the Aldrich action.

Travelers’ Acceptance, Withdrawal, And This Action
On April 1, 2009, Glaspy & Glaspy, counsel for KB Home, tendered the defense and indemnity of KB Home as additional insureds under the Norcraft policies in the Aldrich action. This initial tender included copies of the original Complaint, First Amended Complaint, KB Home’s Cross-Complaint, a Stipulation and Order of Reference to the Special Master, the Subcontract and additional insured documentation.

On April 6, 2009, Patricia E. Dlugokenski (“Dlugokenski”), a senior technical specialist for Travelers, acknowledged receipt of the tenders and requested additional information, including: a statement of claims or documentation related to the alleged defects and deficiencies, expert investigation reports into defects or damages, current pleadings and any Case Management Order or Pre-Trial Order documents, and the location of any document depository.

On April 6, 2009, in response, KB Home provided an updated Homeowner matrix, the amended complaint, and the dismissal of one of the plaintiffs’ homes. KB also informed Travelers that the Pre-Trial Order had not yet been filed and there was no defect list but that KB Home would forward the defect list as soon as it is received. On July 6, 2009, Dlugokenski noted in the internal Claims Notes that “it is likely some, although minor damages resulted from [cabinet] installation. Damages to the walls or pulling away from the walls could be attributed to installation.” (Emphasis added) Also on July 6, 2009, Dlugokenski issued a letter accepting KB Home’s tender as additional insureds under the Norcraft policies.

The letter also requested information that would assist Travelers in its evaluation of the demand for payment of defense expenses, such as contact information for all carriers who have been provided a tender of defense, their responses, the amounts they have paid, the percentage they agreed to pay, a litigation budget, and an additional insured matrix showing the carriers tendered as well as their responses.

On October 20, 2009, Dlugokenski sent an email to KB Homes’ counsel requesting “documentation of damage caused by our named insured (defect report, etc.)” KB Home’s counsel informed Travelers that no defect list was available to date.

On November 5, 2009, Tom Frazier (“Frazier”), Travelers’ unit manager conducted a review of KB Home’s tenders and found that they lacked documentation of damage or liability arising out of Norcraft’s work. On December 1, 2009, KB Home contacted Travelers about its outstanding balance and requested payment. On December 10, 2009, Dlugokenski responded with a single-sentence email stating, “We will be withdrawing our acceptance.” On February 9, 2010, Hartford Casualty Company (“The Hartford”), another insurance company, accepted KB Home’s tenders of defense and issued a payment of $30,000 for KB Home’s defense in the Aldrich action. The Hartford made no further payments.

On March 9, 2010, Dlugokenski sent a letter to KB Home advising that Travelers was withdrawing from KB Home’s defense.

On May 27, 2010, KB Home filed this action against Travelers. On July 8, 2010, Fred Adelman, counsel for the Aldrich plaintiffs, signed a letter stating that “[t]he plaintiffs in this action are pursuing recovery for damages arising out of the cabinets.”

On August 4, 2010, KB Home provided the Aldrich plaintiffs’ preliminary defect list regarding cabinets, entitled “Aldrich, et al. v. KB Home, et al., Preliminary Defect List.” On December 17, 2010, based on the August 4, 2010 defect list, Travelers sent a letter to KB Homes in which it agreed to participate in the defense of KB Homes as an additional insured from August 4, 2010 forward and that it was appointing Christian Lucia of Seller Hazard Manning Ficenac & Lucia (“Sellar Hazard”) to represent KB Home in the Aldrich action. Travelers added that if KB Home wished to continue to retain Glaspy & Glaspy to provide it with a defense it could do so, but at its own expense.

On January 4, 2011, KB Home sent a letter to Travelers stating that Travelers has forfeited any right to control KB Home’s defense because it breached its duty to defend KB Home. KB Home also stated that Sellar Hazard had “a clear conflict of interest and is currently representing a subcontractor directly adverse to KB Home in a pending construction defect lawsuit and that under no circumstances will KB Home waive the conflict.

On January 28, 2011, Travelers issued payment of $73,654.54 to KB Home as payment for its one-half share of KB Home’s defense fees and costs in the Aldrich action pursuant to its equal shares allocation with The Hartford. On July 19, 2011, Norcraft and the Aldrich plaintiffs reached a settlement in the Aldrich action by the terms of which plaintiffs agreed to an issue release related to all cabinet issues, in exchange for the lump sum payment of $30,000. Travelers claims that, as of August 25, 2011, it had paid in excess of $187,418 in the defense of KB Home in the Aldrich action, which it claims is the amount of all outstanding invoices presented.

On August 26, 2011, KB Home filed its Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. Also on August 26, 2011, Travelers filed is Motion for Summary Judgment or, in the Alternative, Partial Summary Judgment. On September 16, 2011, Travelers filed counterclaims against KB Homes for reimbursement, unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and declaratory relief.

Discussion
KB Home sought partial summary judgment that:

  1. Traveler’s duty to provide KB Home a defense was triggered from the date of tender, April 1, 2009;
  2. Travelers breached its duty to provide KB Home a defense; and,
  3. Belated payment of the costs of the defense in the Aldrich action did not cure Traveler’s breach of its duty to defend KB Home.

Travelers sought summary judgment in its favor on KB Home’s breach of contract claim because:

  1. KB Home breached its duty to cooperate by refusing to accept Travelers’ appointed counsel;
  2. KB Home cannot prove a duty was owed when Travelers denied coverage because Travelers’ duty to defend had not been triggered;
  3. KB Home has not presented any evidence of resulting damages. Travelers also sought summary judgment in its favor on KB Home’s breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing because:
    1. Travelers never withheld benefits due under the policy;
    2. Any delay in paying benefits was based on a genuine dispute regarding coverage; and,
    3. Travelers conducted a reasonable investigation of KB Home’s tender.

The District Court considered both motions and ruled against Travelers and in favor of KB Home in most parts of its motion. It reasoned about the various issues:

Breach Of Contract
For an insurer, the existence of a duty to defend turns not upon the ultimate adjudication of coverage under its policy of insurance, but upon those facts known by the insurer at the inception of a third party lawsuit. Hence, the duty may exist even where coverage is in doubt and ultimately does not develop. The defense duty is a continuing one, arising on tender of defense and lasting until the underlying lawsuit is concluded or until it has been shown that there is no potential for coverage.

The Norcraft policies provide coverage for “property damage.” The Norcraft polices do not cover property damage to Norcraft’s work arising out of it or any part of it.

Travelers argued that the complaint does not allege that other property was damaged as a result of the cabinets. Specifically, Travelers argues that the Aldrich complaint only alleges the existence of cabinet and wood trim defects at the homes and that the cabinets were installed so as to interfere with the cabinets’ useful life.

Travelers’ reading of paragraph 17, however, appears to consider only the final sentence of the allegation which list the defects, including cabinet and wood trim defects, to which the rest of the paragraph makes reference. The immediately preceding sentence states that the “defects … have resulted in damage to the homes and their component parts. Thus, the complaint alleges that cabinet and wood trim defects caused damage to the homes and their component parts, which potentially includes parts of the homes other than the cabinets.

The District Court concluded that as a result of the Aldrich complaint tendered on April 1, 2009, Travelers was required to defend KB Home unless and until Travelers could demonstrate, by reference to undisputed facts, that the claim cannot be covered. KB Home’s motion for partial summary judgment that Travelers owed it a duty to defend as of April 1, 2009 was granted.

Travelers failed to present evidence showing a genuine issue of fact regarding whether, at the time of its March 9, 2010 withdrawal, there was no potential for a covered liability.

To be excused from its duty to defend by KB Home’s alleged breach of the duty to cooperate, Travelers must show prejudice that resulted from KB Home’s withholding these documents. Travelers has not identified any related prejudice, much less provided evidence upon which a reasonable jury could find prejudice. KB Home, however, has pointed to evidence that Travelers was not prejudiced by these documents because, even if these documents had been produced earlier, Travelers would have acted no differently.

Travelers’ expert, Gene Irizarry, declared that “even though KB [Home] did not provide the Lot Files to Travelers, had it done so, no duty to defend would have been triggered.” This evidence indicates that, with or without the documents, Travelers still would have determined that it did not have a duty to defend. Thus, assuming that KB Home withheld these documents, Travelers has not raised a genuine issue of fact regarding whether Travelers was excused from its duty to defend as a result.

The undisputed facts demonstrate that Travelers breached its duty to provide KB Home with a complete and immediate defense of the Aldrich action when it withdrew from KB Home’s defense on March 9, 2010. Therefore the District Court granted KB Home’s motion and denied Travelers’ motion.

Whether Travelers Cured Its Breach By Its Belated Payment
KB Home also moved for summary judgment that Travelers’ belated acceptance of its duty to defend does not cure its prior breaches. In opposition, Travelers argued that KB Home has not provided any evidence of damages. KB Home sought judgment that Travelers’ failure to take up KB Home’s defense when its duty was triggered is not cured because Travelers did so after KB Home filed this action.

A belated offer to pay the costs of defense may mitigate damages but will not cure the initial breach of duty. KB Home’s motion for summary judgment that Travelers did not cure its breach by its belated payment for KB Home’s defense was, therefore, granted by the District Court.

“The insurer’s right to control the insured’s defense extends to the right to select legal counsel.” Travelers Property Cas. Co. of America v. Centex Homes, No. 11-3638-SC, 2012 WL 1657121, at *4 (N.D. Cal. May 10, 2012). However, “[w]hen an insurer wrongfully refuses to defend, the insured is relieved of his or her obligation to allow the insurer to manage the litigation and may proceed in whatever manner is deemed appropriate.” Eigner v. Worthington, 57 Cal. App. 12 4th 188, 196 (1997).

Here, the Aldrich action was tendered to Travelers on April 1, 2009 and triggered Travelers’ duty to defend. On March 9, 2010, Travelers declined to participate in the Aldrich defense. Travelers, however, agreed to defend KB Home on December 17, 2010, after KB Home had provided Travelers with a defect list from the Aldrich plaintiffs on August 4, 2010 and after KB Home filed this lawsuit.

Duty To Defend Arose Immediately Upon Tender
Since Travelers’ duty to defend arose immediately upon the April 1, 2009 tender, Travelers’ withdrawal and delay in providing KB Home with a defense divested it of the right to control KB Home’s defense. Thus, Travelers failed to demonstrate that the undisputed evidence shows KB Home’s rejection of Travelers’ chosen counsel was a breach of the cooperation clause.

During the time the insurer had rejected the tender of the defense, the insured arranged and paid for its own defense. The belated tender did not fully remedy the harm caused by the insurer’s refusal to defend by later paying the insured’s attorney fees, though this belated decision unquestionably mitigated its damages.

Breach Of Duty To Investigate
An unreasonable failure to investigate amounting to such unfair dealing may be found when an insurer fails to consider, or seek to discover, evidence relevant to the issues of liability and damages. Based on KB Home’s initial tender, on July 6, 2009, Travelers’ Claim Notes document Traveler’s decision to accept KB Home’s defense because of a likelihood of covered damages.

An insurer’s early closure of an investigation and unwillingness to reconsider a denial when presented with evidence of factual errors will fortify a finding of bad faith. KB Home, therefore, presented evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of fact regarding whether Travelers acted in bad faith in refusing to defend KB Home.

Conclusion
For the reasons discussed above, the District Court ordered as follows:

  1. KB Home’s motion for partial summary judgment that Traveler’s duty to provide KB Home a defense was triggered from the date of tender, April 1, 2009;
  2. Travelers breached its duty to provide KB Home a defense; and
  3. belated payment of the costs of the defense in the Aldrich action did not cure Traveler’s breach of its duty to defend KB Home.

Travelers’ has been found to breach its duty to defend in two cases in California because of its failure to thoroughly investigate upon tender of defense and that, when it had second thoughts and agreed to defend, found it had lost its right to control the defense.

If, as in KB Homes, there is a small potential for coverage, a defense should be provided promptly subject to a reservation of rights. Withdrawing that defense when there is no additional investigation or new facts is not within the custom and practice of Commercial General Liability insurers in California and most of the country.

Travelers then added insult to the injury caused by its withdrawal of defense by coming back and offering to defend with control of counsel and the defense and ignoring the conflict of interest between it, its chosen counsel, and the additional insured. In addition, had it done a thorough investigation, it could have accelerated the settlement negotiations and resolved the Aldrich case for less than the amount of defense costs.