On March 15, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the approval of an approximate $40 million class action settlement. Wally Walker, co-lead counsel, orally argued the case before the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit found that the lower court in Maryland did not abuse its discretion in approving the agreement reached between the policyholders and Banner Life Insurance and William Penn Insurance Companies. In affirming the district court’s approval of the settlement as fair to the class, it said: “[the] settlement was reached after an extensive motions practice, extensive discovery and investigation of Banner and William Penn policies by Plaintiffs’ counsel and multiple settlement discussions and negotiations.”
The Fourth Circuit stated that this case should be considered a poster child for deferential treatment afforded the District Court as it was “chock-full of the most esoteric principles of life insurance accounting imaginable.” The Court’s twenty-five page opinion clarified the standard in the Fourth Circuit for objections to class settlements as follows: Objectors of the settlement must state and support their objection, and proponents must demonstrate that it is fair, reasonable, and adequate despite the objection.
The named plaintiffs, represented by Walker and co-lead counsel Dee Miles, alleged the companies unfairly increased the cost of insurance charges on certain universal life insurance policies in 2015. In May 2019, Maryland Federal District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett approved the $38.2 million class-wide settlement between plaintiffs and Defendants Banner Life Insurance Co. and William Penn Life Insurance Co, which consisted of more than 10,750 universal life policyholders.
However, before the Maryland court could give final approval, one policyholder objected to the settlement – the 1988 Trust for Allen Children (Allen Trust). The Allen Trust argued that the settlement provides no compensation for damages it called “Deficit Account Harm.” The district court permitted the Allen Trust discovery to assist in determining whether the objection was meritorious, which the Fourth Circuit acknowledged was “an extremely unusual occurrence” but was within the district court’s discretion.
Walker and Miles, as Court-appointed co-lead counsel, represented the named plaintiffs and succeeded in arguing before the district court that the settlement was fair, reasonable, and adequate to all class members notwithstanding the lone objector’s arguments.
The case is 1988 Trust for Allen Children v. Banner Life Insurance Company, case number 20-1630, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.