Ninth Circuit Decision Shows Life Insurance Pitfalls for Policyholders; Clarifies Jurisdiction in Insurance Disputes

The Ninth Circuit’s recent ruling in Elhouty v. Lincoln Benefit Life, Case No. 15-16740 (March 27, 2018) is notable for two reasons.  It illustrates the pitfalls of certain life insurance policies that supposedly pay for themselves, and it clarifies the jurisdictional standard governing when insurance disputes can be litigated in federal as opposed to state courts.

Elhouty purchased a flexible premium adjustable life insurance policy from Lincoln Benefit Life Company with a $2 million face value.  Adjustable life policies are often marketed as giving the policyholder all the advantages of death benefit protection, an interest-bearing account for investment purposes, and flexibility as to how premiums are paid.  The policies often come with a sales pitch that the policy’s investment component will effectively pay off the future premiums, without mentioning that the investment returns are often inadequate to cover future premium increases.

Elhouty’s case illustrates this pitfall: for years, Elhouty arranged for his premiums to be IMG_1030paid directly out of the policy’s net surrender value, but failed to notice when the net surrender value was exhausted and he was sent a bill for $55,061.49 to keep the policy in force.  Since Elhouty never paid the additional premium, Lincoln Benefit claimed the policy lapsed.  Elhouty disputed Lincoln Benefit properly notified him of the additional premium he owed, and filed a lawsuit seeking a court declaration that the policy remained in force.

Elhouty sued in state court, and Lincoln Benefit removed the action to federal court (conventional wisdom holds federal courts are more insurer-friendly than state courts).  To properly remove the action, Lincoln Benefit was required to establish that the amount of money at issue in the lawsuit exceeded $75,000.00.  Lincoln Benefit argued the amount at issue was the full $2 million policy face value; Elhouty claimed it was only the $55,880.08 in premiums he allegedly owed Lincoln Benefit.

On the jurisdictional issue, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Lincoln Benefit.  The court determined the unpaid premiums were not in dispute because Lincoln Benefit did not seek to recover them from Elhouty.  Elhouty had had the option to pay $55,880.08 to keep the policy in force, but the real dispute in the lawsuit was the policy’s validity.  The court clarified that, in cases where the “controversy relates to the validity of the policy and not merely to liability for benefits accrued,” the policy’s face value is the amount in controversy for jurisdictional purposes.  Thus, the court ruled the amount in controversy was $2 million and federal courts had jurisdiction.

The court also agreed with Lincoln Benefit on the merits of the dispute.  Elhouty argued Lincoln Benefit’s policy termination notice for unpaid premiums was defective because Elhouty never received notice.  But the court ruled that the language of the policy and applicable state law required only that the notice be mailed, not that the policyholder actually receive it.

For insurance lawyers, Elhouty is useful for its clarification of the jurisdictional standard. For policyholders, Elhouty is a reminder of the importance of keeping your premium payments up to date and not taking the insurer’s promotional materials at face value.

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