[authors: Samuel Sorich and Larry Golub]
In Federal Insurance Company v. Steadfast Insurance Company, issued September 24, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, held that two primary liability policies that provided “personal injury” coverage for wrongful eviction, wrongful entry and invasion of the right of private occupancy did not impose a duty to defend a complaint alleging discriminatory in housing. At the same time, an umbrella policy that specifically covered discrimination did obligate that insurer to defend the insured.
Sterling managed rental properties. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against Sterling alleging discrimination based on race, national origin and familial status in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The complaint alleged, among other things, that Sterling perpetuated an environment that was hostile to non-Korean tenants, provided inferior treatment to non-Korean tenants, and refused to rent and discriminated against African Americans. The Department of Justice asserted that Sterling’s discriminatory practices included entering a tenant’s apartment without notice or knocking.
Sterling had two primary liability policies, one for two years with Steadfast Insurance Company followed by three years of coverage with Liberty Surplus Insurance Corporation, and excess-umbrella policies for several years with Federal Insurance Company. The Steadfast and Liberty policies were standard primary policies and provided coverage for “personal injury” resulting from wrongful eviction, wrongful entry or invasion of the right of private occupancy. The umbrella portion of the Federal policies’ “personal injury” coverage not only defined such coverage to include wrongful eviction, wrongful entry and invasion of the right of private occupancy but also covered discrimination based on race or national origin.
Sterling tendered its defense of the Fair Housing Act complaint to the three insurers. When Steadfast and Liberty refused to defend the action, Federal defended under a reservation of rights and then brought a coverage action against the two primary insurers. Steadfast also brought a cross-action against Federal.
Federal contended that Steadfast and Liberty, as primary insurers, had a duty to defend; and because the insurers had a duty to defend, Federal’s duty to defend under its umbrella coverage did not attach. Federal based its position on the argument that Sterling’s creation of a hostile environment for the tenants amounted to a claim of constructive eviction, thus falling under the personal injury coverage for wrongful eviction, wrongful entry, and the invasion of the right of private occupancy in the Steadfast and Liberty policies.
The trial court, on cross-motions for summary judgment, found that only Federal’s umbrella policy provided coverage, and not the two primary policies. An appeal followed..
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that even though the complaint for discrimination alleged acts that might involve wrongful evictions, wrongful entries, or invasions of the right of private occupancy, the essential nature of the complaint was a Fair Housing Act enforcement action.
"The court concluded the complaint “cannot be construed as asserting common law theories of wrongful eviction, wrongful entry, or invasion of the right of private occupancy. Only the tenant can claim wrongful eviction, wrongful entry, or invasion of the right of private occupancy.”
The court ruled that neither Steadfast nor Liberty had a duty to defend the Fair Housing Act action, but Federal did have a duty to defend Sterling. The court’s opinion explained,
"Because the Sterling action was based on discrimination and only the Federal policies, and not the Steadfast or Liberty policies, provided coverage for discrimination claims, the umbrella coverage in the Federal policies ‘dropped down’ to fill the gap in the Steadfast and Liberty policies and provide primary coverage in the Sterling action."