Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Wallis v. Centennial Insurance Co.

April 15, 2009

DALE M. WALLIS, D.V.M., JAMES L. WALLIS, AND HYGIEIA BIOLOGICAL LABORATORIES, INC., A CALIFORNIA CORPORATION, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CENTENNIAL INSURANCE COMPANY, INC., A NEW YORK CORPORATION, ATLANTIC MUTUAL INSURANCE, CO., INC., A NEW YORK CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS, AND RELATED COUNTERCLAIMS AND THIRD-PARTY COMPLAINT.



MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTION TO COMPEL ARBITRATION

Plaintiffs Dale M. Wallis ("Dr. Wallis"), James L. Wallis ("Mr. Wallis"), and Hygieia Biological Laboratories Inc. ("Hygieia") brought this action against defendants Centennial Insurance Company Inc. and Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co. Inc. alleging breach of insurance contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and breach of fiduciary duty relating to plaintiffs' veterinarian professional liability insurance policy ("Policy"). Defendants now move to compel binding arbitration pursuant to California Civil Code section 2860(c).

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Dr. Wallis is a research veterinarian. (Compl. ¶ 8.) Beginning in 1993, Dr. Wallis was involved in a lawsuit over the intellectual property rights to a bovine vaccine she had developed while working for Poultry Health Laboratories ("PHL"). (Id. ¶¶ 11-14.) Several related lawsuits ensued, one of which involved a complaint by Dr. Wallis against PHL and its shareholders alleging that she had created the vaccine and that PHL had defrauded her of her invention. (Id. ¶¶ 11-18.) In that action, PHL filed a cross-complaint against Dr. Wallis, Mr. Wallis, and Hygieia alleging unfair competition, interference with contractual relations and prospective economic advantage, misappropriation of trade secrets, and conversion. (Id. ¶ 19.) Pursuant to the Policy, defendants in this case provided the defense of the PHL cross-complaint under a reservation of rights. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 21.)

Because defendants provided the defense under a reservation of rights, plaintiffs retained independent counsel of their own choosing and defendants proceeded to pay the legal fees and costs incurred. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22.) However, defendants have allegedly begun "to impose unreasonable and illegal limitations upon the fees and costs that will be paid" and have "attempt[ed] to control the litigation by refusing to abide by the terms of the Policy." (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.)

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in this case on October 27, 2008, asserting diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), and alleging breach of insurance contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and breach of fiduciary duty. Defendants subsequently filed a third-party complaint against plaintiffs' counsel, Joanna R. Mendoza. (Docket No. 9). Defendants also moved for judgment on the pleadings on plaintiffs' claim for breach of fiduciary duty and moved to strike plaintiffs' request for injunctive relief, which this court granted and denied, respectively, in an Order dated February 3, 2009. (Docket Nos. 10, 17.)

Presently before the court is defendants' motion to compel binding arbitration pursuant to California Civil Code section 2860(c).

II. Discussion

In California, when an insurer provides a defense under a reservation of rights, California Civil Code section 2860 imposes on the insurer a duty to provide its insured with independent counsel of the insured's choice, commonly referred to as Cumis counsel. See Cal. Civ. Code § 2860(a); San Diego Navy Fed. Credit Union v. Cumis Ins. Soc'y, Inc., 162 Cal. App. 3d 358 (1984). In addition to requiring that the insurer cover the reasonable fees of independent counsel, section 2860 also requires that disputes regarding those fees be resolved by arbitration. See Cal. Civ. Code § 2860(c).

Although one California court has broadly stated that "[f]ederal actions involving Cumis fee issues . . . are not subject to section[] 2860's arbitration procedure," Compulink Mgmt. Ctr., Inc. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 169 Cal. App. 4th 289, 298 (2008), this assertion does not precisely describe the state of the law. This passage from Compulink was intended to summarize the holding of Caiafa Professional Law Corp. v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., 15 Cal. App. 4th 800 (1993), but Caiafa simply held that a California trial court did not abuse its discretion by staying an arbitration of Cumis counsel fees in favor of a federal fraud trial involving similar issues between the parties, 15 Cal. App. 4th at 803. As the Caiafa court explained,

The California Legislature did not say, and could not say, Cumis fee issues must be decided through mandatory arbitration and we forbid Federal judges or juries from deciding these issues. . . . What the California Legislature did say, and all it said, was that when a Cumis fee issue is to be decided in the California courts it is to be decided through the mandatory arbitration procedure set forth in section 2860.

Id. at 804. Therefore, while a literal reading of Compulink may suggest that section 2860(c) somehow eschews the doctrine of Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), a closer examination reveals a far less dramatic proposition.

Accordingly, there is little doubt that this court, sitting in diversity, must apply section 2860(c) to the case at bar. See, e.g., Tucker v. First Md. Sav. & Loan, Inc., 942 F.2d 1401, 1406 (9th Cir. 1991) (providing that a federal district court sitting in diversity "sit[s] in the same posture as the . . . state court and there should be no different result in the federal proceedings than would have been achieved in the state court proceeding"); see also Karsant Family Ltd. P'ship v. Allstate Ins. Co., No. 08-1490, 2009 WL 188036, at *6 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 27, 2009) (granting defendant's motion to compel arbitration pursuant to California Civil Code section 2860(c)).

Relying principally on Fireman's Fund Insurance Cos. v. Younesi, 48 Cal. App. 4th 451 (1996), plaintiffs oppose defendants' motion to compel arbitration because this case "involves claims to be adjudicated beyond a mere dispute over fees." (Opp'n 5:17-18.) Specifically, plaintiffs contend that defendants are attempting to "control [the] litigation by conduct designed to prevent [plaintiffs] from having the independent counsel of their choice" because defendants "happen to disagree with the defense strategy." (Id. at 2:18-19, 1:15-18; see Compl. ¶¶ 26, 34-35.)

In Younesi, an insurer filed a state court action against Cumis counsel alleging claims of fraud, malpractice, and conversion. 48 Cal. App. 4th at 455. The appellate court denied Cumis counsel's motion to compel arbitration because, while acknowledging that attorney's fees were a "central issue" in the suit, concluded that the action was "not merely a dispute about billing rates" since it included allegations of malpractice and fraud. Id. at 458. The Younesi court continued, "the language of Civil Code section 2860 can only be interpreted to limit the ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.