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Monday, June 9, 2014

Teaching Third Party Beneficiaries, Assignment & Delegation & a New Third Party Beneficiaries Case out of the First Circuit

Last year, my big teaching innovation was to get rid of casebooks and rely instead on cases and ancillary materials that my fellow contracts prof, Mark Adams, and I edited and compiled on a LibGuide.  This coming year, my big innovation will be to add a unit on Third Party Beneficiaries, Assignment and Delegation.  I can do so because we now have a two-credit course on Damages and Equity at the end of our first-year curriculum, and so I do not need to cover remedies in my contracts course.  I will continue to emphasize remedies throughout the course, but we will not end the semester with a unit consisting of cases that focus primarily on remedies issues.  Fare thee well, Peevyhouse, Jacob & Youngs, Hadley, et al.!  I really will miss you.  

I can do so without regrets, as my students will study these cases (or at least the subject matter for which they are the vehicle of presentation) in their Damages and Equity course.  The reason I feel I need to jettison this material in favor of third parties, etc. is that I have recently learned that those subject matters are heavily tested on the multi-state bar exam.  They also are important in practice, and I don't know where they would be covered if not in first-year contracts.

1st CirSo, with that in mind, the recent First Circuit case, Feingold v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co. caught my eye.  The case related to Feingold's mother's insurance policy, which she took out in 1945.  The policy named Mrs. Feingold's late husband as the sole beneficiary.  He apparently pre-decesased her, and she died in 2006.  Feingold had no knowledge of his mother's policy and did not inform John Hancock of her death until 2012.  At that point, he sought information about her policy.  John Hancock issued Feingold a death benefit check of $1,349.71 but provided no further information about his mother's policy.  That policy, it seems, required a named beneficiary to notify the insurer of the policy-holder's death.  Because such a provision was permissible under state law, the trial court found that John Hancock had no duty to notify Feingold of the policy or to independently seek out potential beneficiaries.  

But Feingold also relied on a 2011 Global Resolution Agreement (GRA) entered into by John Hancock and several states.  Under the GRA, John Hancock agreed to alter some of its practices relating to unclaimed property.   Feingold filed a putative class action claiming that he and other members of the class were harmed as third-party beneficiaries of the GRA when John Hancock breached its obligations under the GRA.  

The First Circuit affirmed the District Court's grant of John Hancock's motion to dismiss Feingold's claims.  The First Circuit found that Feingold and the putative class members are not third-party beneficiaries to the GRA.  The GRA contains no language sufficient to overcome the "strong presumption" against third party beneficiaries.   While Feingold alleged that both John Hancock and the states entered into the GRA in order to protect insurance policy beneficiaries, the First Circuit reasoned that Feingold and others like him are at most incidental rather than direct beneficiaries of the GRA.  Under applicable state law, the fact that states were parties to the agreement strengthens the assumption in favor of the third parties' incidental status.

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