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In re Mt. Hawley Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of South Carolina

June 12, 2019

In re: Mt. Hawley Insurance Company, Petitioner, In Which Contravest, Inc., Contravest Construction Company and Plantation Point Horizontal Property Regime Owners Association, Inc., as assignees, are Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2018-001170

          Heard April 17, 2019

          ON CERTIFICATION FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT`

          C. Mitchell Brown, William C. Wood Jr., and Blake T. Williams, all of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, of Columbia; and Andrew K. Epting Jr., of Andrew K. Epting Jr., LLC, of Charleston, all for Petitioner.

          Jesse A. Kirchner, Michael A. Timbes and Thomas J. Rode, all of Thurmond Kirchner & Timbes, P.A., of Charleston, for Respondents.

          Gray T. Culbreath and Janice Holmes, both of Gallivan, White, & Boyd, PA, of Columbia, for amici curiae The American Property Casualty Insurance Association and The South Carolina Insurance Association.

          Bert G. Utsey III, of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, P.A., of Charleston, and J. Ashley Twombley, of Twenge & Twombley Law Firm, of Beaufort, for amicus curiae the South Carolina Association for Justice.

          KITTREDGE JUSTICE.

         We are presented with a certified question from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The underlying case is an insurance bad faith action against an insurance company for its failure to defend its insured in a construction defect action. The insured settled the construction defect action and brought a bad faith tort action. When the insurer asserted it acted in good faith in denying coverage, the insured sought to discover the reasons why the insurer denied coverage. According to the insurer, the discovery requests included communications protected by the attorney-client relationship. The federal district court reviewed the parties' respective positions, determined the insured had established a prima facie case of bad faith, and ordered the questioned documents to be submitted to the court for an in camera inspection. The insurer then sought a writ of mandamus from the Fourth Circuit to vacate the district court's order regarding the discovery dispute. In turn, the Fourth Circuit certified the following question to this Court:

Does South Carolina law support application of the "at issue" exception to attorney-client privilege such that a party may waive the privilege by denying liability in its answer?

         The parties, especially the insured, assert the certified question does not accurately represent the correct posture of the case. In fact, the insured concedes the narrow question presented requires an answer in the negative. We agree, for we find little authority for the untenable proposition that the mere denial of liability in a pleading constitutes a waiver of the attorney-client privilege. For the reasons set forth below, we elect to analyze the issue narrowly in the limited context of a bad faith action against an insurer. We are constrained to answer the certified question as follows: "No, denying liability and/or asserting good faith in the answer does not, standing alone, place the privileged communications 'at issue' in the case."[1]

         I.

         In its Certification Order, the Fourth Circuit summarized the relevant facts as follows:

Mount Hawley [Insurance Company ("Mount Hawley")] provided ContraVest Construction Company ("Contravest") with excess commercial liability insurance from July 21, 2003, to July 21, 2007. During that period, Contravest constructed the Plantation Point development in Beaufort County, South Carolina. In 2011 the Plantation Point Horizontal Property Regime Owners Association ("the Owners Association") sued Contravest for alleged defective construction of Plantation Point. Mount Hawley refused Contravest's demands to defend or indemnify Contravest in the suit, as Contravest contended was required by its insurance policies, and Contravest ultimately settled the case.
Contravest and the Owners Association subsequently sued Mount Hawley in South Carolina court, alleging bad faith failure to defend or indemnify, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. Mount Hawley removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 (2012), and federal subject matter jurisdiction exists under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (2012) based upon complete diversity of citizenship between the parties and damages alleged to be greater than $75, 000.
During discovery, the plaintiffs sought production of, first, Mount Hawley's file on Contravest's claim for excess coverage relating to the Plantation Point suit, and later, Mount Hawley's files relating to all of Contravest's claims under its excess liability policies. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1), 34(a)(1)(A). Mount Hawley contended that these files contained material protected by the attorney-client privilege, and produced files in redacted form with accompanying privilege logs. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(5)(A). The plaintiffs filed multiple motions to compel, arguing that Mount Hawley waived the attorney-client privilege as to these files. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(a)(3)(B)(iv). The district court adopted the recommendation of the magistrate judge, granted the motions to compel, and ordered Mount Hawley to produce the files for in camera inspection. ContraVest Inc. v. Mt. Hawley Ins. Co., 273 F.Supp.3d 607, 622-23 (D.S.C. 2017). The district court subsequently denied Mount Hawley's motion for reconsideration [in which it asked the district court to certify four questions of law to the Supreme Court of South Carolina]. Mount Hawley then sought a writ of mandamus from [the Fourth Circuit] to vacate the district court's order granting the motions to compel.
[]
In its petition for a writ of mandamus, Mount Hawley challenges the district court's holding that the relevant files were not protected by the attorney-client privilege because Mount Hawley put them "at issue" in the case by denying liability for bad faith failure to defend or indemnify. Because this is a diversity action involving claims for which South Carolina law provides the rule of decision, South Carolina's law of attorney-client privilege applies. See Ashcraft v. Conoco, Inc., 218 F.3d 282, 285 n.5 (4th Cir. 2000); Fed.R.Evid. 501. In South Carolina the attorney-client privilege is defined as follows:
(1) Where legal advice of any kind is sought (2) from a professional legal adviser in his capacity as such, (3) the communications relating to that purpose (4) made in confidence (5) by the client, (6) are at his instance permanently protected (7) from disclosure by himself or by the legal adviser, (8) except the protection be waived.
Tobaccoville USA, Inc. v. McMaster, 387 S.C. 287, 293, 692 S.E.2d 526, 530 (2010). "In general, the burden of establishing the privilege rests upon the party asserting it." Wilson v. Preston, 378 S.C. 348, 359, 662 S.E.2d 580, 585 (2008).
In finding that the relevant files were not protected by South Carolina's attorney-client privilege, the district court relied on City of Myrtle Beach v. United Nat[ional] Ins[urance] Co., No. 4:08-1183-TLW-SVH, 2010 WL 3420044 (D.S.C. Aug. 27, 2010) (unpublished). City of Myrtle Beach also involved a bad faith insurance suit under South Carolina law in which the insured sought to compel the insurer to produce the relevant claim files, and the insurer argued that the files contained material protected by the attorney-client privilege. Id. at *1-2. The district court adopted the approach articulated in Hearn v. Rhay, 68 F.R.D. 574 (E.D. Wash. 1975), as "consistent with established South Carolina law." Id. at *5. Applying Hearn, the district court found that
there is no per se waiver of the attorney client privilege simply by a plaintiff making allegations of bad faith. However, if a defendant voluntarily injects an issue in the case, whether legal or factual, the insurer voluntarily waives, explicitly or impliedly, the attorney-client privilege. Thus, "voluntarily injecting" the issue is not limited to asserting the advice of counsel as an affirmative defense. A party's assertion of a new position of law or fact may be the basis of waiver.
Id. (citation omitted).
Applying this definition of waiver, the court in City of Myrtle Beach found that "for the purposes of the motion to compel, the insured has presented a prima facie case of bad faith," and the insurer failed to meet its burden of establishing the absence of waiver of the attorney client privilege on account of the defenses asserted in its answer, including that the insurer acted reasonably and in good faith. Id. at *7. The court noted that "while this ruling amounts to a virtual per se waiver of the privilege in this case, this result is based on the facts and issues presented by the insurer in its Answer and its failure to meet its burden as to the applicability of the privilege with this in mind." Id.
In the present case, the district court rejected Mount Hawley's argument that City of Myrtle Beach was inconsistent with South Carolina law in light of the fact that one member of the Supreme Court of South Carolina criticized the Hearn decision in a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. See Davis v. Parkview Apartments, 409 S.C. 266, 291-96, 762 S.E.2d 535, 549-51 (2014) (Pleicones, J, concurring in part and dissenting in part). The district court found "that the numerous decisions that have applied City of Myrtle Beach in this district provide stronger evidence than the separate opinion in Davis that the Supreme Court of South Carolina would adopt such an approach." ContraVest, 273 F.Supp.3d at 616. The district court also concluded that this approach strikes the best balance between "the important policy goals of the attorney-client privilege against the substantive interests underlying an insured bad faith claim." Id. (citation omitted).
Following the approach articulated in City of Myrtle Beach, the district court concluded that because the plaintiffs had established a prima facie case of bad faith failure to insure, and Mount Hawley in its answer denied bad faith liability, Mount Hawley waived the attorney-client privilege with respect to the attorney-client communications in the claim files, to the extent such communications are relevant under [Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure]. Id. at 611-23.[2] The court thus ordered Mount Hawley to produce the files for an in camera review. Id. at 623.

         Order of Certification at 2-6 (footnotes omitted) (internal ...


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