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High Court Shuts Door on Claims Against Insurance Salesman

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Plaintiffs looking to sue insurance salesmen and financial advisors must be able to show they ceded decision-making control to the defendants before they can pursue claims for breach of fiduciary duty, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled.

Divided 4-2, with one justice not participating, the high court reversed a decision from the Superior Court that had allowed the case, Yenchi v. Ameriprise Financial, to proceed on breach of fiduciary duty claims. The plaintiffs, Eugene and Ruth Yenchi, had sued their financial advisor, Bryan Holland, over an underfunded life insurance policy he sold them in 1996.

Related: Insurers: Keep an Eye on this Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case)

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Christine Donohue said that, although the issues of whether a plaintiff in fact ceded control to someone can be fact-intensive, precedent meant that simply showing that a plaintiff relied on another party’s superior knowledge in a given subject area is not sufficient to support breach of fiduciary duty claims.

“We acknowledge that the Yenchis may have become comfortable with the appellant’s expertise before decision to purchase the 1996 whole life insurance policy, which is to be expected when making a financial decision,” Donohue said. “It does not, however, establish a fiduciary duty. There is no evidence to establish that the Yenchis were overpowered, dominated, or unduly influenced by Holland.”

Justice Debra Todd issued a dissent that Justice David Wecht joined saying there appeared to be enough evidence for the claim to proceed past the summary judgment phase.

According to court documents, in 1995, defendant Holland contacted the Yenchis and presented himself as a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial Inc. They met in his office, and the Yenchis agreed to buy a financial analysis. The parties then discussed their financial status.

Holland presented the Yenchis with detailed financial management proposals to help better prepare for their retirement, including a recommendation to consolidate their life insurance policies into a single policy. Holland said the premiums would never increase and would end after 11 years. He also advised that they purchase a deferred variable annuity, which he said would mature when Ruth Yenchi turned 65.

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The Yenchis followed Holland’s advice, but after they had their life insurance policy reviewed independently, they learned that the policy was underfunded, their premiums would increase and never cease, and the annuity would not mature until Ruth Yenchi turned 84, court papers said.

The Yenchis sued for negligent misrepresentation, fraudulent misrepresentation, violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, bad faith, breach of fiduciary duty and negligent supervision.

In 2015, a split-three judge Superior Court panel reversed and remanded a trial court’s ruling that the Yenchis could not establish a fiduciary relationship against a man who sold them an underfunded life insurance policy. The majority said the lower court needed to further examine the relationship between the parties.

Donohue discussed prior cases regarding what circumstances are needed to prove a fiduciary relationship existed, and determined that the critical question is whether the relationship went beyond simply relying on superior skills or expertise.

The Superior Court’s decision, she said, was an error because it “miss[ed] the point that the exercise of undue influence, at its core, indicates that an individual so influenced has lost the ability to make an independent decision.”

“We are pleased the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with our assessment of the facts in this matter,” a spokeswoman for Ameriprise said in an emailed statement.

Kathy Condo of Babst, Calland, Clements & Zomnir, who represented Holland and Ameriprise, did not return a call for comment. Kenneth Behrend of Behrend & Ernsberger, who represented the Yenchis, was unavailable for comment.

— Check out Get Ready to Be a Fiduciary on ThinkAdvisor.