Commercial Ventures: U.S. District Court holds that Insured’s Co-Owner and President is not an “Employee” under Crime Policy

By David S. Wilson and Chris McKibbin

Several recent decisions, such as Telamon Corporation v. Charter Oak Fire Insurance Company (see our March 13, 2017 post), have highlighted the importance of assessing the precise legal status of an alleged defaulter’s work relationship vis-à-vis the insured as part of a proper coverage analysis. The decision of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Commercial Ventures, Inc. v. Scottsdale Insurance Company provides another example of the courts considering this challenging issue. In Commercial Ventures, the Court dealt with an alleged defaulter who was both a minority owner and the President of the insured, and specifically addressed whether contingent ownership distributions constituted “salary, wages or commissions” within the crime coverage’s definition of “Employee”.

The Facts

Commercial Ventures had two affiliated companies, Noblita, LLC (“Noblita”), which operated an apparel business, and Daylight Investors, LLC (“Daylight”), which owned 49 per cent of Noblita. Rik Guido personally owned another 49 per cent of Noblita, and was also its President. As an owner of Noblita, Guido was entitled to receive $27,500 per month, but only under certain conditions.

Noblita’s Limited Liability Company Operating Agreement (the “Operating Agreement”) defined Guido’s compensation as follows:

Mr. Guido will not be paid for such services [as President], but so long as (1) he is President of the Company and rendering his full time services to the Company (and in compliance with the terms of this Agreement) and (2) the company has adequate monies, Mr. Guido will receive a Distribution of twenty–seven thousand five hundred dollars ($27,500) per month.

The Operating Agreement defined “Distribution” as “the transfer of money or property by [Noblita] to one or more Members without separate consideration.”

In November 2013, Daylight sued Guido in state court, alleging that Guido participated in a fraudulent scheme whereby he transferred money and inventory from Noblita to a Florida-based company in which he had an ownership interest.

Commercial Ventures maintained a Business Management Indemnity Policy with Scottsdale, under which both Noblita and Daylight were additional insureds. The policy’s crime coverage included coverage for employee theft. Daylight notified Scottsdale of a potential employee theft loss arising from Guido’s alleged actions.

Scottsdale inquired as to the nature of Guido’s role with Noblita. Noblita’s controller advised that Guido was not entitled to take any distribution from Noblita unless the company had adequate monies or was profitable. The controller added that, during the majority of the months in which Guido worked for Noblita, it had negative operations and Guido was therefore not entitled to any distribution.

In Scottsdale’s view, Guido was a non-salaried member of Noblita, and was therefore not an “Employee” within the meaning of the crime coverage.

The Employee Theft Coverage

Scottsdale moved for summary judgment before the District Court on this issue. The crime coverage defined “Employee” as:

Any natural person while in the services of the Insured, including sixty (60) days after termination of service; provided the Insured:

i. compensates such person directly by salary, wages or commissions; and

 ii. has the right to direct and control such person while performing services for the Insured.

 The parties’ dispute centred on whether Guido’s contingent compensation constituted “salary, wages or commissions”. Commercial Ventures asserted that, because the crime coverage did not define the terms “salary, wages or commissions”, the terms were ambiguous. The Court considered dictionary definitions of those terms:

Salary

  • fixed compensation paid regularly for services.”
  • [a]n agreed compensation for services—esp. professional or semiprofessional services usu. Paid at regular intervals on a yearly basis, as distinguished from an hourly basis.”

Wage

  • a payment usually of money for labor or services usually according to contract and on an hourly, daily, or piecework basis.”
  • [p]ayment for labor or services, usu. Based on time worked or quantity produced; specif., compensation of an employee based on time worked or output of production.”

Commission

  • a fee paid to an agent or employee for transacting a piece of business or performing a service.”
  • [a] fee paid to an agent or employee for a particular transaction, usu. as a percentage of the money received from the transaction.”

The Court noted that the parties were in agreement that “salary, wages or commissions” constituted compensation for a person’s services, and held that:

… the Court finds that the definition of “employee” is unambiguous as it is clearly defined in the policy. In addition, “salary, wages or commissions” — words used to define “employee” — are not ambiguous as they are only subject to one interpretation in this case as well. Therefore, the issue becomes solely whether there is a triable issue of fact as to whether Plaintiff paid Mr. Guido for his services, in turn, meaning whether he was paid “salary, wages, or commissions.” [citations omitted]

The Court then considered whether Guido’s contingent compensation under the Operating Agreement could be considered “salary, wages or commissions”. The Court observed that accepting the insured’s arguments on this issue would entail that the definition of “Distribution”, which specifically indicated that distributions were made “without separate consideration”, would be meaningless, as would the provision stipulating that “Mr. Guido will not be paid for” his services as President. In accepting Scottsdale’s view, by contrast:

… the Court may give these provisions their plain meaning and may still read the Operating Agreement as a cohesive whole. In other words, in the Court’s view, it appears that the parties, as reflected in the Operating Agreement, intended to appoint Mr. Guido as President of Noblita and to provide him with ownership distributions. The Operating Agreement did not intend, however, to compensate Mr. Guido for his services as President; rather, it compensates him in his role as an owner through distributions only. Though the Operating Agreement indicates that Mr. Guido is entitled to his owner distributions only so long as he served as President, this does not mean that his owner distributions are intended to compensate him for his services. [emphasis added]

Consequently, Guido was not an “Employee” and no indemnity was available.

Conclusion

Although the decision is based on the interpretation of the specific contract between Noblita and Guido, Commercial Ventures provides general guidance as to the proper interpretation of the definition of “Employee” found in many crime coverages, as well as the meaning of the specific terms “salary, wages or commissions”. The Court rejected the insured’s contention that these terms were ambiguous, and found that ownership distributions did not fall within their ambit. The interpretive approach adopted in Commercial Ventures will be of assistance to fidelity claims professionals in assessing whether individuals who maintain both ownership and other roles within an insured come within the definition of “Employee”.

Commercial Ventures, Inc. v. Scottsdale Insurance Company, 2017 WL 1196462 (C.D. Cal.)

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