Attorney General: Texas not obliged to pay for excess TWIA losses

You heard it here first.  As I wrote back in July of 2012, if the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association does not have enough money to pay its claims, the State of Texas has no obligation to pay its unpaid claims to policyholders. This was confirmed this week by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in an opinion letter written to Texas State Representative (and Chair of the House Insurance Committee John Smithee).  The bottom line of the letter  providing the formal opinion of the Texas Attorney General is reprinted below. Here is a link to the full opinion.

The bottom line of Attorney General Abbott's opinion

The bottom line of Attorney General Abbott’s opinion

The Attorney General’s opinion should hardly have been necessary given the obviousness of the proposition. It is, as I suggested, not a matter over which people — particularly lawyers who can read a statute — could reasonably disagree. Perhaps the weight of the Texas Attorney General behind the proposition will, however, put to rest claims by some coastal legislators that the matter was debatable.  The AG opinion likewise vindicates Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman who made the same assertion last year and who, for thereby calling into question the financial stability of TWIA, was threatened with a criminal investigation by Texas State Representative J.M. Lozano. Perhaps Representative Lozano will now issue an apology?

So, TWIA policyholders take note.  As it stands, there is no cavalry coming over the hill when a tropical cyclone empties TWIA.  Your insurer will not have money to pay your claim in full.  The State of Texas will not pay your claim. The Texas Property and Casualty Insurance Guarantee Association will not pay your claim. No one with money will have legal responsibility to pay your claim under your TWIA policy. You are very likely to be under a blue tarp and coping with a ruined house for a long time. Unless and until the legislature acts, whether in a special session or a regular session two years hence, the restoration of your property and your life may well depend on the kindness of strangers.

Photo of Katrina survivors in the Houston Astrodome

The kindness of strangers the last time a major hurricane left many people homeless

Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman Confirmation in Doubt

Eleanor Kitzman

Eleanor Kitzman

Serious doubt exists today as to whether Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman will be confirmed by the Texas Senate.  Her name does not appear on the list of nominees set for confirmation today and today appears to be the last day on which this committee will meet.  If so, and if, as I suspect, this is a response to her actions regarding windstorm insurance in Texas, this is a major loss for Texas. I would urge the legislature to reverse course. I would urge Governor Rick Perry and other leaders to speak up and support their choice.

But before voting to confirm someone with years of experience in insurance regulation and regarded highly enough nationally to head the critical Financial Regulations Standards and Accreditation Committee of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), legislators should at least examine the alleged marks against her.

The Rap Sheet

Count 1: Aggravated truth Telling

On or about June of 2012, Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman responded to a request from state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, by stating that the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association would be unable to pay claims fully if some Category 4 or higher hurricanes hit. This utterance challenged the prevailing wisdom that everything was fine with TWIA. It challenged the cultivated illusion that investors could regard collateral or property insured by TWIA as having the same degree of security as property and collateral insured by other Texas insurers. It threatened growth on the coast.

For this heresy, Commissioner Kitzman was welcomed back to Texas by Representative J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, with a request that she be investigated byTexas Attorney General Greg Abbott for breaking Texas law. And what law might it be that criminalizes speaking the truth? Lozano said her letter may have made a “misleading representation regarding the financial condition of an insurer” or somehow violated a state pledge not to impair collection of assessments on bonds that TWIA might issue following a major hurricane. Needless to say, the investigation requested by Representative Lozano, if one was ever done by our more level headed attorney general, went absolutely nowhere because Kitzman’s speech had violated no law and done no wrong.

Commissioner Kitzman compounded this alleged wrongdoing by then saying in her response to Chairman Smithee that, if TWIA did become insolvent, the state of Texas was under no legal obligation to make up for the resulting unpaid claims of TWIA policyholders.  Never mind the fact that absolutely no one has cited any legal authority saying that Texas has an obligation to pay such debts any more than obligations to guarantee other unpaid obligations throughout the state.  Never mind the fact that the Texas Property and Casualty Insurance Guaranty Association statute makes clear that it does not provide protection — at all — for government-created insurers. Never mind that Commissioner Kitzman is an experienced attorney and expert in insurance regulation who can read as well as anyone else and find no law creating such an obligation on the part of the State of Texas. Never mind, even, when I tell you as a professor of insurance law at a respected university that there is no such legal obligation. Commissioner Kitzman again disrupted the illusion that it was no more risky to invest on the coast of Texas than it might be to invest in El Paso or Dallas or San Antonio. And that, in certain parts of Texas, is apparently a crime or, if not, the basis for refusing to confirm an otherwise eminently qualified individual for a critical regulatory post.

But, of course, it goes beyond daring to question the assumption of security along the Texas coast or doing so just one time.

Count 2: Threatening A Trial Lawyer with reduction of fees

On or about March of 2013, Commissioner Kitzman asked the TWIA board to consider placing TWIA in receivership, the Texas equivalent of bankruptcy, following its filing of an annual report that showed that it was insolvent. Let us make clear what the consequences of such an act might be.

TWIA has been a boon to trial lawyers along the Gulf Coast.  In part because of extremely dubious adjusting practices by the Windstorm Association and, perhaps in part for other reasons, attorneys along the Texas coast have made hundreds of millions of dollars on contingency fees arising out of breach of contract, bad faith and statutory claims  against TWIA.  I am not, please note, saying there is anything wrong with this. Insurers do on occasion misbehave, perhaps particularly so, when they have not been properly capitalized. There need to be deterrents against exploitation of policyholders and there is nothing wrong with lawyers advocating zealously on behalf of their clients. And, in the interests of full disclosure, I worked at one time as an expert on behalf of one of those very plaintiffs firms evaluating what appeared to me to be inappropriate use of statistical evidence by TWIA in adjusting claims.

The key point, however, is that there are still a number of Ike claims pending.  In receivership, those claims might not be paid in full. They would have to be treated with at least some regard to future claims against an insolvent insurer. But, if those claims were not paid in full, not only would the claimants perhaps not receive perfect justice but the attorneys representing those claimants would likely suffer a commensurate reduction in their percentage interests (contingency fees) in the lawsuits. Both of those possibilities — a threat to people one has come to care about and a loss to one’s own pocketbook in the process — can make good people mad. And when those people also make hefty contributions to political campaigns, that’s almost a crime in Texas.

Moreover, consider the threat to the illusion of security compounded by going public with the idea that TWIA was insolvent, that future claimants might need to be treated fairly, and that TWIA might need to be placed into receivership.  Other Commissioners might have swept that issue under the rug or concocted ways to extract more money out of inland Texans to pay for future claims.  But not Commissioner Kitzman. By even uttering the word “receivership,” she compounded her earlier threat to the cultivated illusion of security that has fueled the addiction to continued development along the vulnerable Texas coast. Never mind that receivership might actually help TWIA recapitalize itself — indeed that is a major purpose of receivership — the public confirmation of TWIA’s desperate straits might make other lenders reluctant to lend and developers reluctant to develop on the strength of a TWIA policy.

Plea for Relief

There are, of course, other issues with Commissioner Kitzman’s tenure. Her views on balance billing rules in health insurance have stirred up controversy. And, because to my knowledge no public hearings were ever held on her appointment, we don’t know if there are issues pertaining to managerial competence or other matters. This is not a full accounting of her pros and cons.

From what I can see, however, Commissioner Kitzman has been an open and fair individual — yes one with a free market bent that one would have thought might have sold well in Texas.  She participated in creative efforts that did not constitute toadying to powerful private insurers to deconcentrate the risk now held in TWIA and get those insurers to start shouldering some of the windstorm risk but at fair prices. She’s presided over the growth in an outstanding web site that provides excellent information to consumers. She has been generous with her time to me, appearing in my insurance law class this fall to speak forthrightly with students. She’s been a leading figure nationally in insurance regulation.

I hope the Texas Senate somehow changes course and confirms her.  If not, I hope Governor Rick Perry figures out a way the State of Texas can continue to benefit from her expertise.  And, above all, I hope that legislators realize that shooting the messenger does nothing to protect the Texas coast or attract talent to critical fields in our state.

 

The Op Ed on TWIA run by the Austin American Statesman

This op ed was run by the Austin American Statesman on July 10.  I am reprinting it here.

Leaving denser coastal counties out to dry if major windstorms strike

Seth J.Chandler, Special Contributor

Published: 7:11 p.m. Tuesday, July 10, 2012

 

The biggest windstorm in Texas so far this summer has been generated not by the warm waters of the tropics but by the courage of Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman.

In June, Kitzman responded to a request from state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, by stating that the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association would be unable to pay claims fully if some Category 4 or higher hurricanes hit.

The state-created operation provides insurance against tropical storms and hurricanes on $72 billion worth of property owned by 259,000 people living on the Texas coast.

Kitzman further said the law did not require the State of Texas to rescue either an insolvent TWIA or Texas homeowners and businesses left with incompletely paid claims.

For this statement, Kitzman has been vilified by some coastal media outlets and by some coastal politicians, culminating in a call this week by state Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to investigate her for breaking Texas law.

What was Kitzman’s possible crime? Lozano says her letter may have made a “misleading representation regarding the financial condition of an insurer” or somehow violated a state pledge not to impair collection of assessments on bonds that TWIA might issue following a major hurricane.

Kitzman’s real crime was daring to tell the truth to people who do not want to be confronted, now that hurricane season has started again, with the consequences of an irresponsible decision. In summer 2009, the Texas Legislature, to much praise, did fix a flaw in the old system of insulating Texas coastal residents from the cruelties of the private insurance market.

The Legislature saved Texas insurers, even ones not writing insurance near the coast, from the potential of unlimited assessments to pay for a major hurricane. But in doing so, it deliberately chose to reject a competing plan that would have forced TWIA to use actuarially sound rates and that took modern science on global warming into account.

The state Legislature instead used two sleights of hand in 2009 to make the tough medicine go down.The first was to keep current premiums lower by running insurance in reverse. Rather than forcing TWIA to collect enough premiums now to have cash on hand in the event of a major hurricane, the legislators chose to rely on “post-event bonding” vehicles called Class 1, 2 and 3 Securities.

Texas insurers will raise premiums and not just on windstorm insurance and not just on the coast after a hurricane, when people would already be hurting, to pay for these classes of securities that it assumes it will be able to sell following a major storm.

Texas’ second trick was to choose not to insure fully against the costliest hurricanes, such as a Category 4 or 5 hitting Galveston County. As TWIA itself puts the matter, “currently, there is no funding for TWIA losses in excess of Class 3 public securities” or about $3.6 billion.

The Texas Legislature saved money the same way you could if you insured your $8,000 or your $32,000 car for a maximum of $8,000 loss with the thought that fender-benders are frequent, but really catastrophic events seldom happen.

Such a system would indeed lower your premiums, and it might fully protect the less expensive car. And, if all went well, such a policy might even protect the more expensive car. But it still places your expensive car at risk.

Whether consciously or not, in 2009 the less-propertied Texas coastal counties, such as Kleberg and San Patricio, from which Lozano hails, hornswoggled the rest of the state into accepting a system that probably can pay even their major claims fully (like totaling the $8,000 car) but left the more propertied coastal counties, Galveston and Brazoria, at risk for major claims or totals.

So, if we’re shooting messenger, Kitzman, for telling Texas the truth about its underfunded public windstorm insurance system or, possibly worse, for promoting its restructuring, shoot me, too.

I declare again, as a law professor who has studied TWIA’s statutes and its finances for many years: The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association does not have the financial capacity to pay claims fully in the event a major hurricane strikes a property-rich Texas county and neither the state nor anyone else is under any current legal obligation to make up the difference.

Perhaps you should shoot me first because, unburdened by whatever political constraints may keep Commissioner Kitzman more polite, I further declare that the coastal counties, having deliberately chosen to underinsure and reap the benefits of lower premiums, have no moral claims on Texas, either.

Chandler is Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center and director of its Program on Law and Computation; schandler@uh.edu.