Tuesday, August 1, 2017

No. 228: Stranger Originated Life Insurance—Sun Life of Canada Wins a Partial Court Victory

Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada recently won a partial victory in a lawsuit relating to stranger originated life insurance (STOLI). There have been many STOLI lawsuits, and I have written about a few of them. I am writing about this one because it illustrates vividly the fraudulent nature of STOLI transactions.

U.S. District Judge Pamela Lynn Reeves handled the case. President Obama nominated her in May 2013, and the Senate confirmed her in March 2014. (See Sun Life v. Conestoga, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Tennessee, Case No. 3:14-cv-539.)

Developments in the Lawsuit
In November 2014 Sun Life filed a lawsuit against Conestoga Trust Services, LLC. The defendant was the sixth assignee of a $2 million life insurance policy Sun Life issued in April 2008 on the life of Erwin Collins. At the time, Collins was a 74-year-old resident of Knoxville, Tennessee. Conestoga acquired the policy in April 2013. Collins died in June 2014, more than four years beyond the expiration of the two-year contestability period. Sun Life sought a court declaration that the policy was void from inception as an illegal wagering contract. In December 2014 Conestoga answered the complaint.

In January 2015 Conestoga filed an amended answer and a counterclaim against Sun Life. In February 2015 Sun Life responded to the answer and counterclaim, and Conestoga filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. In April 2015 Sun Life opposed the motion. In September 2015 Judge Reeves denied the motion as premature, saying the record was not sufficiently developed for her to determine whether the policy was void from inception as a STOLI scheme, or whether Conestoga was an "innocent bona fide assignee."

In March 2016 Conestoga filed a motion for summary judgment. In September 2016 Judge Reeves denied the motion as moot. In October 2016 Conestoga filed an amended motion for summary judgment, and Sun Life filed a motion for summary judgment.

In January 2017 the parties requested a delay in the proceedings. Judge Reeves postponed the trial, which had been scheduled for March 2017, until November 2017.

The Ruling
On July 12, 2017, Judge Reeves handed down a memorandum opinion and a judgment. Here is the third paragraph of the opinion:
For the reasons that follow, the court finds there was a pre-existing agreement for Erwin Collins to obtain the policy and transfer it to a stranger investor. Therefore, the policy constitutes a STOLI scheme, and under Tennessee law, it violates public policy and is void ab initio. As a result, Sun Life does not have to pay the death benefit to Conestoga. However, Sun Life must refund the premiums to Conestoga so that Sun Life does not obtain a windfall.
The Scheme
Eugene E. Houchins, III (Norcross, Georgia) was the key figure in the case. He was a life insurance broker and president of Bonded Life Company, which he used to procure life insurance policies. He invited Robert Coppock to earn fees by referring elderly persons to him for a program under which those persons would receive money through life insurance policies taken out on their lives. Houchins retained Coppock as a Bonded Life agent. Bonded Life paid Coppock a referral fee of 20 percent of the first-year premium on any completed transaction. Coppock referred Collins to Houchins.

Collins created "The Erwin A. Collins Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust." The trust applied for the policy, and was to be owner, beneficiary, and premium payer of the policy. Houchins worked with David Wolff of Iron Core Capital. Wolff worked with Life Asset, a firm in the secondary market for life insurance policies.

In September 2007 Houchins submitted an informal inquiry to Sun Life about whether Collins would qualify for a Sun Life policy. A week later, Sun Life made a tentative offer subject to a formal application and full underwriting. On November 5, 2007, Ann Collins, the wife of Erwin Collins, signed an application in Knoxville in her capacity as trustee of the Collins trust. A couple of months later, the application and supporting documents were submitted to Sun Life.

In late February 2008 Life Asset told Wolff it would not acquire a beneficial interest in a policy on Erwin Collins because Tennessee was a state where Life Asset would not conduct business. To solve the "Tennessee problem," Houchins had a different trust, with a Georgia address, reapply for a policy. The new application supposedly was signed in Georgia by the insured, by a Houchins friend as trustee, and by Houchins' father as broker/registered representative. Houchins removed references to Tennessee from the policy and trust documents, used a phony Georgia address as the insured's residence, and arranged to have signatures falsely notarized in Georgia. Houchins arranged financing for the initial premium payment, and Sun Life issued the policy.

The Houchins Deposition
On August 4, 2016, a Sun Life attorney deposed Houchins in Atlanta. The transcript shows it was a memorable five-hour deposition. After answering questions about his name and address, Houchins invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to virtually all other questions. His attorney, apparently to be on the safe side, instructed Houchins to take the Fifth despite the fact that the statute of limitations had run out on any conceivable crime for which Houchins might have been charged. The facts in the case were developed from documents in the record and the testimony of others. The Sun Life attorney used the deposition questions to enter many documents into the record. To provide readers with a glimpse of what happened at the deposition, I am offering an excerpt from the transcript.

The Houchins Declaration
In addition to the Sun Life lawsuit, there were other cases involving Houchins. They suggest that he was involved with companies other than Sun Life, such as Pacific Life Insurance Company and Phoenix Life Insurance Company, that there was a $2 million Pacific Life policy on Collins, and that Houchins was involved with several trusts other than the Collins trust. Pacific Life filed an interpleader lawsuit in California when it received claims for the death benefit on the Collins policy from not only the Collins trust but also from a firm that had loaned money to the trust to pay premiums on the policy. In the interpleader case, Houchins filed a declaration describing his involvement in the Pacific Life case. To provide readers with his description, I am offering the Houchins declaration.

General Observations
I first wrote in 1999 about what later came to be known as STOLI. I sometimes called it speculator initiated life insurance (spinlife). I have criticized lax underwriting of policies with large face amounts on the lives of elderly individuals. It is difficult to understand how the companies allowed such cases to be approved, considering all the shenanigans that STOLI promoters used.

It should be noted that many STOLI schemes originated during the STOLI heyday before life insurance companies became aware of the full extent of the fraudulent activity. Here are some of the STOLI tactics I wrote about over the years: lying to proposed insureds, telling proposed insureds to sign blank forms, lying to insurance companies about the income and wealth of proposed insureds, coaching proposed insureds about how to respond if companies or inspection firms asked questions, paying accountants and inspection firms to lie in their reports, forging documents, paying notaries to certify forged signatures, lying to banks and premium lenders, paying attorneys to prepare trust instruments and loan documents, destroying evidence, and finding life insurance companies that were willing to look the other way and allow the issuance of STOLI policies.

I think Judge Reeves got it right. Although the Collins policy was well beyond the two-year period of contestability, she declared the policy void from inception. Also, despite the fact that Sun Life had incurred costs, including expenses associated with issuance of the policy and expenses associated with the lawsuit, the judge required Sun Life to return the premiums Conestoga had paid so as to avoid a windfall for Sun Life. In my view, Sun Life had only itself to blame for the lax underwriting that allowed the policy to be issued.

Available Material
I am offering a 57-page complimentary PDF consisting of the Sun Life complaint (12 pages), an excerpt from the Houchins deposition in the Sun Life case (18 pages), the Houchins declaration in the Pacific Life interpleader case (9 pages), the memorandum opinion by Judge Reeves (17 pages), and the judgment (1 page). Email jmbelth@gmail.com and ask for the August 2017 package about the Sun Life/Conestoga case.