Tag Archives: epl

The Need to Educate on General Liability

In a perfect world, insurance buyers would understand their products just as well their insurance agents. This would save a few headaches for everyone involved, and it would probably streamline the process on all ends. However, the reality is that most business owners don’t understand the extent of the insurance products they purchase. Then again, no one should expect them to.

Insurance products are highly complex vehicles. Few business owners have the time to invest in becoming experts in the field or in the products they purchase. Even the best insurance agents spend years learning about the products they sell, many of which change frequently as the economy changes.

That being said, no business owner should simply buy a product without understanding the most important aspects regarding what it does and does not cover. In truth, a highly skilled insurance agent should never let them, either. Here’s where there can be a gap between how much insurance a business purchases and how much it actually needs, showing why educating business owners on the extent of their insurance really matters.

False Perceptions of General Liability Are Common

Many customers tend to believe their insurance covers more than it actually does. This situation could probably be applied to any insurance product, but general liability policies are often the most frequently misunderstood by buyers.

See also: What to Expect on Management Liability  

To put it simply, far too many businesses are purchasing less insurance coverage than they should. In a sense, many are taking a huge gamble, believing their risk exposure is less than what it actually is or that their preventative measures, such as employee training, can shield them from those risks. While risk prevention definitely helps, it’s ultimately far from the bulletproof shield many companies think it is. Most companies do it to help themselves get a better rate on their insurance, while maintaining the false perception that their general liability coverage protects them against a multitude of risks not actually defined in the policy.

As a company scales in size, so, too, does its likelihood of experiencing losses related to cyber liability, employee fraud, fiduciary liability, directors and officers (D&O) or workplace violence. Yet many companies seem not to realize their exposure.

This would, of course, be less troubling if companies were purchasing policies that actually covered those kind of risks. Overwhelmingly, they’re choosing to avoid those insurance products altogether. According to Chubb’s survey on private company risk, non-purchasers believed their general liability policy covered:

  • Directors and Officers Liability (65%)
  • Employment Practices Liability (60%)
  • Errors & Omissions Liability (52%)
  • Fiduciary Liability (51%)
  • Cyber Liability (39%)

Businesses aren’t failing to purchase enough liability coverage because they’re unnecessary risk takers. Most, it seems, simply have false perceptions about what their general liability will and won’t do.

A small business may think its general liability policy covers a server hack. Yet, lo and behold, when a server gets hacked and the ensuing liability claims start pouring in, that small business may quickly find itself underwater. In fact, the U.S National Cyber Security Alliance found that the 60% of small companies went out of business within six months of a cyber attack. This seems extreme, but the average cost for a small business to clean up after a hack is $690,000, according to the Ponemon Institute. How many small- or medium-sized businesses can easily absorb that kind of cost without insurance coverage? Not many.

Similarly, mid-sized companies may believe their general liability policy covers directors and officers, leaving the company with unnecessary risk exposures should an incident occur. If, for example, a company begins operating internationally and fails to effectively meet one of the federal regulations governing its industry, a general liability policy won’t help protect the company from impending lawsuits. Any directors held personally responsible may find their own personal assets at risk. Given what we learned from the Chubb survey, it’s quite likely that most directors may think they’re fine with the minimal coverage they receive from a general liability policy. A costly mistake, to be sure.

Who’s to Blame?

We’ll leave the finger pointing aside for now and settle on this: The customer is always right, but he’s not always well-informed. As every insurance agent knows, the amount of time it takes to fully understand an insurance product can be extensive. Business owners, in general, lack the time to invest in fully understanding the products they purchase. It should come as no surprise, then, that misunderstandings arise over what general liability policies actually cover and what risks they simply won’t mitigate.

See also: ISO Form Changes Commercial General Liability  

Insurance agents have a responsibility to use their knowledge to help business owners better understand and sift through those misconceptions. More needs to be done to help decision-makers understand what they are and are not getting from their insurance.

Helping businesses better understand the ins and outs of their general liability policy is a win-win all around.

Will Your Website Get You Sued?

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have discovered a new, rich litigation vein to exploit, potentially yielding a treasure of targets to sue. Using Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and applying it to a modern societal institution (the internet) that was not in existence or contemplated when that law was enacted, lawyers may have hit pay dirt again by claiming that websites are not accessible to the disabled.

Title III of the ADA requires places that are open to the public to not discriminate against individuals due to their disability or otherwise deny them “the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” These rules apply to any company that permits “entry” by the public. Although traditionally Title III of the ADA has been applied to physical structures, recent cases have raised issues as to whether these rules may apply to websites, as well.

To date, the case law addressing these issues is very limited and has been mixed. Case law from the Seventh Circuit has applied the ADA to websites, and the First, Second and Eleventh Circuits have applied the ADA beyond physical structures, providing ground for plaintiffs to argue that the ADA can extend to a virtual space such as websites. Meanwhile, the Third, Fifth and Ninth Circuits have applied the ADA provisions to physical locations only.

See also: Broad Array of Roles for Disability Coverage  

The Department of Justice, which is responsible for interpreting and enforcing Title III of the ADA, says that Title III does apply to websites. However, in typical government fashion, the DOJ has delayed releasing its “accessibility” guidelines for webpages, with an anticipated release date in 2018.

While the regulations and laws on website accessibility may be unclear, a few law firms are nonetheless sending out demand letters targeting specific industry sectors nationwide (for example, private universities and real estate brokerage firms) and demanding compliance with onerous website standards. The letters ask the recipient to hire the plaintiff’s law firm (or their preferred vendor) to help reach an “acceptable level” of compliance. In addition, several national retailers, including Patagonia, Ace Hardware, Aeropostale and Bed Bath & Beyond have been named in lawsuits regarding accessibility to their sites. According to Bloomberg’s BNA reports, 45 of these type of lawsuits were launched in 2015. That number is expected to increase substantially in 2016.

With the law so unclear on this topic, how should businesses navigate these murky waters? First, if you receive one of these demand letters, you should consider contacting an attorney and should avoid engaging in discussions with the plaintiff or their law firm without representation. Then, along with your attorney and an IT representative (in-house or a vendor), develop a strategy to bring your webpage into accessibility compliance. Although there is no “one-size fits all” approach to move toward compliance, depending on what is on your website, businesses can consider providing audible text on each webpage and providing audible captions for pictures. Ultimately, to play it safe you may want to take all reasonable steps to improve navigation and access on your website.

See also: New Products and Combined Approaches

Takeaway

Lawsuits related to website accessibility could likely be next cash cow for plaintiffs’ attorneys. As the early case law on this issue is so mixed, there is little guidance as to who has to be compliant and what exactly compliance would look like. Until the DOJ gets around to issuing guidelines (assuming they provide much guidance), businesses should consider reviewing their websites and documenting reasonable efforts to make the sites accessible to the disabled. Further, companies should consider purchasing a robust employment practices liability (EPL) policy with broad third-party coverage that can potentially pick up the defense of claims related to website access claims.

This article was co-written by Marty Heller.

When Are Background Checks Not Allowed?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been quite active in challenging employers’ use of criminal background and credit history checks during hiring. There is still significant uncertainty as to the current standards and law about the checks of criminal and credit history. The lack solid guidance makes it difficult for employers to determine how to evaluate their current use of this information, as well as to understand the legal pitfalls and hurdles that the EEOC has placed in front of them.

EEOC Directives

The recent activity emanates from the EEOC’s recent directive and key priority (as per its December 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP)) to eliminate hiring barriers. This priority includes challenges to policies and practices that exclude applicants based on criminal history or credit check. The EEOC has a keen interest in this area, as it believes that criminal/credit checks have a disparate impact on African American and Hispanic applicants. As the EEOC pursues the directive, expect the EEOC to scrutinize failure-to-hire claims where a criminal history or background check was conducted. Even if the background check was “facially neutral” and was uniformly given to all applicants, the EEOC may investigate to determine if the check had a “discriminatory effect” on certain applicant(s).

The EEOC asserts that criminal background checks must be “job-related” and “consistent with business necessity.” Employers are advised to consider: (1) the nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; (2) the time that has passed since the offense, conduct or completion of the sentence; and (3) the nature of the job held or sought. The EEOC stresses the need for an “individualized assessment” before excluding an applicant based on a criminal or credit record.

Local/State/Federal Laws

Employers face additional legal hurdles regarding hiring practices because of recent local and state legislative developments. These laws are commonly referred to as “ban the box” (i.e., restrictions on the use of criminal history in hiring and employment decisions). Making matters even more difficult, employers have also been subject to a surge in class action litigation under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA regulates the use of and gathering of criminal histories through third-party consumer reporting agencies with respect to conducting background checks on applicants or employees.

Legal Actions

In pursuit of its directive, the EEOC has filed several large-scale lawsuits against employers. We expect that the EEOC will continue to file similar lawsuits throughout 2015 and beyond. Most have been brought as failure-to-hire claims. For example, an African-American woman brought a claim alleging that she was discriminated against based on her credit history. This claim started out as a single plaintiff action, but, after the EEOC conducted its initial investigation, the EEOC dramatically expanded the scope of the initial charge, alleging that the employer was engaging in a “pattern and practice of unlawful discrimination” against: (1) African-American applicants by using poor credit history as a hiring criterion and (2) African-American, Hispanic and white male applicants by using criminal history as a hiring criterion.

Reasonable employers complain that the EEOC has placed employers in a Catch 22. Employers have to choose between ignoring criminal history and credit background, exposing themselves to potential liability for criminal and fraudulent acts committed by employees or to an EEOC lawsuit for having used this information in a discriminatory way.

Takeaway for Employers

Claims involving criminal background checks and credit checks are an EEOC priority. At this time, employers have little guidance from the courts or the EEOC as to exactly what “job-related” and “consistent with business necessity” mean and just how closely a past criminal conviction has to correspond with the duties of a particular job for an employer to legally deny employment to an applicant. Moreover, employers continue to witness expanding restrictions dealing with criminal history at the state and local level based on ban-the-box legislation, as well as with an increasing number of class action lawsuits involving background checks as required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Employers are encouraged to work closely with legal counsel as to what they should and should not ask on applicants as well as how and when they can use background information they obtain. Based on this evolving area of the law, we additionally recommend that employers purchase a robust EPL policy that will defend them in the event that the EEOC or a well-skilled plaintiff’s counsel pursues a claim against them for discrimination, or for failure to hire based on criminal or credit background checks.

How Strict Can a Dress Code Be?

Does your company have a “look” or standard of dress it requires in the workplace? No hats, or maybe no beards? Can you deviate from the dress code?

Increasingly, employees and applicants for employment are making “failure to accommodate” claims on the grounds that they were discriminated against based on their need for a change or exception to a workplace grooming or dress policy. Examples of religious discrimination or failure to accommodate can include: not hiring the applicant because she doesn’t fit the company’s “look” or placing an employee in a non-customer-facing position because of religious attire or grooming (e.g., long beard, piercings, head scarf ).

The law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et. seq., as amended, prohibits employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating in employment hiring, recruitment, promotion, benefits, training, job duties, termination or any other aspect of employment on the basis of religion. It also prohibits retaliation for complaining of religious discrimination or for participating in the investigation of such claims, and for denying reasonable accommodations, including accommodations for religious attire or grooming standards. It is the EEOC’s position that an employer is required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business.

Title VII only provides protection to sincerely held religious beliefs and practices about dress code. These protections are broadly interpreted and cover not only traditional religious beliefs but also those that are new and uncommon. If an employee merely makes such a request for accommodation based on personal preference rather than religious belief, there are no Title VII protections or implications. However, the requirement that employers and their management learn to distinguish between these two types of requests can be daunting and dangerous in light of the litigious society we live in.

Recent case

In February 2015, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case filed against Abercrombie & Fitch, where a Muslim applicant was rejected after wearing a head scarf (known as a hijab) to an interview, based on the hiring manager’s belief that such covering violated the company’s rigid “look” policy, which forbids caps and hats. The applicant never asked for an accommodation, and the employer never opened a dialog as to whether a reasonable accommodation to the dress code would be necessary. Once a ruling is issued, we hope the Supreme Court will provide guidance as to when an employer has any obligation to open dialog about religious accommodation without the employee or applicant making such a request.

Takeaway

To ensure compliance with the law, employers must be informed and vigilant when applying workplace uniform, “look” or grooming policies, particularly as they apply to employees or applicants in need of a religious accommodation. Management or hiring decision makers should be trained on how to implement religious accommodation requests, specifically, learning to identify and understand religious clothing accommodation requests and how to properly engage in such discussion. When in doubt as to the proper handling of a religious clothing accommodation, we suggest that you contact a labor and employment lawyer before making employment decisions. Your attorney can also help identify potential pitfalls in uniform, look or other clothing policies. Further, a well-designed employment practices liability (EPL) insurance policy should be purchased to mitigate potentially costly financial damage, should you be faced with a discrimination suit based on religious dress or grooming.

What to Expect on Management Liability

Gradually, over the last four-plus years, several management liability insurance (MLI) carriers have shifted their underwriting appetite and guidelines nationally, most dramatically in California. These changes have included some combination of:

·         Increased rates
·         Increased retentions
·         Reductions in coverage
·         Reductions in total limits offered
·         Reductions or removal of wage and hour defense cost sub-limits
·         Non-renewal of insureds based on industry, asset size, financial condition or loss experience.

This is quite a change, as for the previous 10-plus years there has been a surplus of capacity and MLI carriers were eager to write accounts at very attractive rates and terms. While there are still numerous MLI carriers with significant capacity, including some new entrants, the marketplace appears to be reaching a point where this capacity will no longer be use to offer the terms and pricing that we had been accustomed to seeing. This raises the question, “Why?”

Based on our conversations with MLI carriers in this niche, here are a few of the reasons:

·         Poor economic conditions five to seven years, ago leading to a significant spike in the frequency of employment practices liability (EPL) and directors and officers (D&O) related claims

·         Dramatically rising EPL claims expenses (even if a claim is without merit — remember, these policies cover defense costs)

·         Significant and continual increase in the filing of wage and hour claims (wage and hour suits are up 4.7% in the last year and 437% in the last decade)

·         Uptick in D&O claims involving bankruptcy-related allegations, breach of contract, intellectual property, federal agency investigations and judgments, family claims  and restraint of trade

·         The duty-to-defend nature of the policies, forcing carriers to provide a wide expanse of defense coverage for what might be arguably uncovered claims or insureds

What can our current (and new) non-profit and privately held management liability insureds expect as a result of the changes in the marketplace?

Our recommendation is to set expectations as follows:

·         There will be increases in retentions and premiums.

·         Smaller clients will need to absorb bigger percentage increases in premium and retention (as well as possible reductions in coverages), although in many situations the incumbent carrier will still be the best option if the increases are not outrageous.

·         A reasonable degree of competition and capacity will still be available for the larger management liability client. This may help mitigate increases in premium and retention.

·         Increases will be felt by insureds located in major cities (carriers generally still like risks in smaller cities and outside of states such as California, Florida, Illinois, New York and New Jersey).

·         Coverage for the defense of wage and hour claims will be more difficult to obtain and, when available, likely more expensive to purchase and with possibly lower limits or higher retentions.

·         Non-renewals by some carriers, based primarily on class of business or location. Some of these classes of business include:

o    Real estate

o    Healthcare

o    Restaurant/retail

o    Social media

o    Pharmaceuticals

o    Tech/start-ups

·         Carriers are asking for much more underwriting information than they have previously, especially if the insured has challenging financials, the insured is seeking additional funding or the insured has a challenging loss history.

Since 2010, Socius has been advising our clients that the MLI market appeared to be trending toward a hardening, following on the heels of numerous years of softness. As we get deeper into 2015, we continue to believe that this is the case.  The gradual transition that we initially described has, in fact, taken firm hold. We hesitate to pronounce the market as officially “hard” only because we hear rumblings that suggest that market conditions could very well deteriorate further, making what we consider hard today even harder.

For the moment, the watchword to agents and brokers is: “Manage expectations!  Difficult news is coming, so let clients know early – and often.”