California Supreme Court Finally Decides How a UCL Claim and First Party Bad Faith Claim Can Co-Exist

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On August 1, 2013, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Zhang v. Superior Court, holding that an insured may assert a claim against an insurer based on California’s Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (the “UCL”) for conduct that allegedly constitutes common law bad faith, even if the alleged conduct also happens to violate the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA).   

The Supreme Court’s decision resolves a simmering conflict among lower court decisions. A number of courts held that the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Companies, 46 Cal.3d 287 (1988), which abolished any private right of action to enforce the UIPA, precluded UCL claims based on specific unfair practices prohibited by Insurance Code section 790.03(h), which is part of the UIPA. Other courts found that Moradi-Shalal did not bar UCL claims when the basis for the UCL claim was common law bad faith, as opposed to the UIPA – even though the asserted “bad faith” practices are also prohibited under the UIPA.  The Supreme Court adopted the latter position, concluding:

We hold that Moradi-Shalal does not preclude first party UCL actions based on grounds independent from section 790.03, even when the insurer’s conduct also violates section 790.03.

While the Court’s opinion does not dwell on the facts of the case, the claim involved an insured’s purchase of a liability policy to cover her commercial property. The insured disputed the insurer’s handling of her fire damage claim and sued the insurer for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (i.e., bad faith), and a violation of the UCL. 

The UCL claim alleged “unfair, deceptive, untrue, and/or misleading advertising” in that the insurer made promises as to coverage “when it had no intention of paying the true value of its insureds’ covered claims.”  The Court observed that the insured alleged “causes of action for false advertising and bad faith, both of which provide grounds for a UCL claim independent from the UIPA.”

The Zhang case was decided on demurrer. Thus, the Court considered only the allegations of the complaint, and it had to assume the truth of those factual allegations.

After presenting a thorough history of prior decisions over the last quarter century that have considered Moradi-Shalal’s effect on UCL lawsuits against insurers (and other defendants), the Supreme Court allowed the insured to pursue her UCL claim and observed,

Because Moradi-Shalal barred only claims brought under section 790.03, and expressly allowed first party [common law] bad faith actions, it preserved the gist of first party UCL claims based on allegations of [common law] bad faith. Moradi-Shalal imposed a formidable barrier, but not an insurmountable one.

As a result, the insured’s alleged claim of false advertising and “litany of bad faith practices” were “sufficient to support a claim of unlawful business practices.”

In summarizing its holding, the Court stated:

Private UIPA actions are absolutely barred, a litigant may not rely on the proscriptions of section 790.03 as the basis for a UCL claim. . . . However, when insurers engage in conduct that violates both the UIPA and obligations imposed by other statutes or the common law, a UCL action may lie.  The Legislature did not intend the UIPA to operate as a shield against any civil liability.

A concurring opinion written by Justice Werdegar and joined in by Justice Liu agreed with the majority conclusion that the insured should be allowed to pursue her UCL lawsuit against the insurer, but disagreed with the conclusion that no UCL claim could ever be based on violations of the UIPA unless the Legislature affirmatively intended to preclude such indirect enforcement.

While the Zhang decision is likely to generate much attention and be cited extensively in the future, the Court’s holding is nevertheless quite limited and the following points should be noted:

  • The decision is restricted to UCL claims brought by first parties; that is, by insureds.  The Court specifically advised two times that whether third parties may pursue UCL claims “is a matter beyond the scope of this case.”
  • The decision reiterated that while the scope of a UCL claim is broad (“any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising”), the remedies are very narrow – restitution and injunctions. Damages in any form are not recoverable.
  • The UCL does not allow for attorney’s fees (except in those cases where the plaintiff could qualify as a private attorney general under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5).
  • Since the UCL is solely an equitable claim, the trial court possesses “broad discretion” in issuing orders or judgments with respect to any restitution or injunctive relief, and defendants are allowed to advance not only various defenses to the UCL claim but also “equitable considerations” that could minimize or even eliminate a finding of a UCL violation.
  • The restrictions to a UCL claim added by Proposition 64 (standing to assert a UCL cause of action and complying with the class action requirements in any UCL action brought on behalf of others) still apply.
  • The Court referenced another lingering issue in UCL claims – what is the standard for determining what business acts or practices are “unfair” mean in the consumer context under the UCL. This issue, however, remains unsettled and for the Court to decide another day.

Finally, the most likely consequence of the Zhang decision is that insureds may, as a matter of course, add UCL claims to bad faith cases as one more cause of action, incorporating by reference the prior alleged bad faith allegations. Since any UCL claim does not allow a damage remedy, and the only monetary remedy is restitution, the ultimate impact of adding a UCL claim may be minimal.