Applied Underwriters (AU) followed through on their threats to file suit against me for my posts, claiming they were defamatory. I hired an attorney who filed a motion to dismiss the claims, asserting among other things, that my statements were opinion and were protected by the First Amendment. However, the Court found that the manner in which my statements were made “could” be considered statements of fact and not mere opinions. As a result, the Court ruled that the case could go forward and denied my motion. I am happy to report, however, that AU and I have resolved our differences and the case is being dismissed. In the meantime, I have worked and will continue to work with AU on trying to better understand the program. While I continue to believe that the terms were not clearly explained to me during the sales process and that there is an unknown factor regarding my deposits that AU decides, I do have a better understanding of my program and my hope is that it will continue to work as they claimed. I still do not know when I am going to get the return of my deposits, if at all, but I will wait and see as it depends on my claims during the life of the program. But, more importantly, they provided me with workers’ compensation insurance when no other alternative was available, which allowed me to stay in business. My final word on this issue is that whenever you are procuring insurance, regardless of whether it is from AU or another company, take the time to understand the program and get a broker who will work with you to answer any questions you may have.
Posts tagged ‘Applied Underwriters’
After my article last week identifying costly aspects of Applied Underwriters' workers compensation insurance policies that are unusual, hard to predict, and totally undisclosed in the market/sales process, I have gotten a lot of feedback.
The first, of course, was from the lawyers at Applied Underwriters who have threatened me with a libel suit unless I take down my comments. While my blog article wills stay up, Applied Underwriters have apparently managed to get Yelp to hide my reviews in the secret purgatory they maintain for reviews that displease corporate lawyers.
More recently, I have had calls from not one but two different attorneys who are representing Applied Underwriter customers. The one this morning was especially evocative -- he had years of experience as an attorney and litigating over contracts like this but thought he was crazy because he could not figure out the math on the Applied Underwriters statements until he read my post. I had had the exact same issue, almost in tears because I could not figure it out, until an industry insider explained to me that the numbers don't add up. After pages of step by step calculations, there is one step where they simply pull a number out of the air, essentially rendering irrelevant all the calculations that went before. I will respect their client confidentiality but say that the issues involved were very parallel to those I discussed in my article.
Feel free to contact me if you need help or are considering a policy with Applied Underwriters and I will lend you what knowledge I have.
Yelp's Way of Caving to Corporate Pressure and Hiding Reviews While Saying They Didn't Delete Anything
Update: This post may be unfair, as discussed here. I am not fully convinced, though.
A few days ago I posted a negative review of Applied Underwriters, and linked to this post on my blog for much more detail. Yelp promptly pulled the review, saying I violated their terms of service by linking to a commercial web site. I thought that bizarre, since my blog has absolutely nothing commercial about it. But it made more sense when I received a letter from Applied Underwriters demanding that I take down my negative Yelp review or they would sue me for libel. I don't know for sure what happened, but I suspect that Applied Underwriters sent Yelp a similar demand and they used the link in the review as an excuse to delete it and avoid legal entanglements.
So I posted an updated review with more detail and no link. Now, Yelp is hiding the review, along with most of the other negative reviews, behind a nearly invisible link at the bottom that says "other reviews that are not currently recommended". Scroll down to the bottom of this page and you may see it if you have a keen eye. It is not even clear it is a link, but if you click on it, you get all the bad reviews Yelp is hiding.
Let's dismiss all the reasons why Yelp might say they do this. One is clarity, to reduce clutter. But go to your favorite restaurant Yelp page. Likely you will not see this link / hidden review phenomenon. You will see pages and pages of reviews, far more than they would have to show if they just displayed all the reviews for Applied Underwriters.
So there must be another reason. They say in their note there is a quality algorithm. Anyone who has read a lot of Yelp reviews will know that if this is so, their quality algorithm is not working very hard. They have a number of reviews that they "recommend" that are nothing more than a rant like "I will never use these guys again" while my unrecommended review includes paragraphs of detail about the service. They say it is based on your review volume as well, but I have more Yelp review volume than several of the others who seem to pass the screen.
All of which leads me to believe that this is Yelp's purgatory where they hide reviews based on corporate pressure. They have gotten a lot of cr*p publicly about deleting bad reviews from sponsors and from corporations that pressure them to do so. They have a zillion self-righteous FAQ's asserting that they don't delete anything. So imagine Applied Underwriters sends Yelp loads of threats to take down each negative review that comes up. What do they do? They put them in the not-recommended purgatory. They can claim that they haven't deleted anything, but absolutely no one will ever likely see the review. And they don't count any longer to the company's review count, so for all intents and purposes they are gone.
All of this is a guess, because it is absolutely impossible to contact Yelp about these issues. No phone numbers. The ones in general directories for San Francisco don't work for them. You can't email or chat or contact their customer support in any way. For a company in the transparency business, they avoid it like the plague.
But do you want to know what makes me doubly sure of my analysis? Because there is no way to up-rate any of the "not recommended" reviews. I would have thought the whole up-rating system was how they sorted reviews to present the most relevent at the top, but you can't do that with the ones they have put in purgatory. Why? Because these reviews are being put in purgatory not for some customer benefit but to protect corporations able to put pressure on Yelp. Yelp doesn't want them uprated. They are supposed to disappear. If I had time, I would compare the number of "not recommended" reviews for corporations with powerful legal staffs like Applied Underwriters to the number for Joe's local business (AU has 17 recommended reviews but a 28 full reviews that have been "disappeared" as unrecommended).
About a week or so ago I wrote a long and detailed post (with frequent updates as I discovered new information) about my extreme dissatisfaction with my workers compensation insurance from Applied Underwriters, a Warren Buffet-owned insurance company. I also wrote a shorter, parallel review on Yelp** (where Applied Underwriters already has an abysmal rating). For reasons I will guess at in the next post, Yelp keeps marking my post as "not recommended" despite the fact that it is one of the few that is not just a rant of the sort "this company sux" but actually has real details. There is a tiny almost invisible link at the bottom to see other reviews not recommended.
Yesterday, I received a letter from Applied Underwriters (Letter here (pdf)) demanding that I take down the Yelp review and my blog post or else they will sue me for libel. Based on my understanding of libel law, the content of my posts (which are all legally protected opinion), and recent court cases, Applied Underwriters has essentially no chance of ever winning such a suit. But my guess is that this is not their intention. I presume they are hoping that the fear of legal action, and the expense of legal defense, will cause me to stop my perfectly valid public criticism of their product.
I am seeking legal advice from a well-known First Amendment attorney, so Applied Underwriters will get my final response after I have had advice of counsel. But here are a few thoughts:
You can read the attorney's letter in full if you are a fan of such things, but if you read sites like Popehat much, you can pretty much predict what you will see.
The gist of their complaint, from the only paragraph of mine quoted in the letter, seems to be the word "scam". By the text of their letter, they seem to believe that "scam" is libelous because their company is well-rated financially and that they provide reasonable claims service. I concede both these facts. However, I called it a "scam" because there is a big undisclosed cost to their product that was never mentioned in the sales process, and that could only be recognized by its omission in the contract I signed -- that there is nothing in the contract committing them to any time-frame under which to return deposits and excess premiums I have paid, which may well amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. This fact about the contract is confirmed by their customer service staff, who have said further that the typical time-frame to return such over-collections and deposits is 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first of the deposits was made.
If I had gotten any descriptions of their service terms wrong, I would have been happy to correct them. Hell, given that apparently Applied Underwriters will hold over $200,000 of my money for as many as ten years before they maybe return it to me, I am hoping I somehow have misunderstood. Unfortunately, their staff is pretty adamant that I understand these terms perfectly, and you will see that the letter sent by the attorneys does not attempt to refute any of the specific issues that drive my negative review. And of course none of this was ever disclosed in the sales process. The company attorneys point to the fact that I read the agreement and signed that I understood, but in fact this issue is only in the agreement by its omission. In its 10 pages of arcane boilerplate, the agreement never includes any clause giving them any legal obligation to return your deposits and excess premiums in an defined timeframe. It is that omission that I missed. Would you have caught it? Is this a substantial enough issue that you would expect disclosure in the sales process?
So is this a "scam"? I believe that this issue is costly enough, and hard enough to detect, and far enough outside of expected business practices to be called such. You may have your own opinion, but ask yourself -- When you enter into, say, a lease and have to put down a security deposit, is it your reasonable expectation that the landlord has the right in your lease to keep your deposit for 3-7 years (or more) after you move out? Oh, and by the way, how might your evaluation of something as a "scam" be affected by the knowledge that the company is threatening to sue anyone who writes a negative review?
Anyway, I take responsibility for my own failure as a consumer here. But in a free society it is perfectly reasonable to communicate issues one has with a product or service to help others avoid similar mistakes. Which is what I have done.
** I have problems with Yelp as well. What is linked is not my original review. My original review linked to my blog post. Yelp took it down. I will tell that saga in a future post.
Update 2/1/2016: I will not comment further at the moment on Applied Underwriters as they are currently suing me to have this article below removed. So you will need to look elsewhere for news on AU, of which there appears to be plenty. For example, here and here. The State of California Insurance Commission, via an Administrative Law Judge's decision, has ruled on the legality of the AU product discussed below. That ruling (pdf) can be downloaded here. I would love to comment on it but I will have to leave the evaluation to you. If you can't read the whole thing pages 33 and 34 are worth your time, as well as the conclusions that begin on page 59.
Well, I have managed to get myself into a scam. It is not your normal scam, like the ones that are run by some mafia boiler room with guys working under aliases. This scam comes via a major insurance company called Applied Underwriters (working under the names California Insurance Company and Continental Indemnity Company) which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and none other than Warren Buffett. If you feel sorry for Warren Buffett and want to give him a large interest-free loan for an indeterminate number of years, this is your program.
Update 4/16: Let me insert here that Applied Underwriters has sent me a letter threatening a libel suit if I do not take down this post and a parallel review at Yelp. AU Takedown demand here (pdf). The gist of the matter seems to be the word "scam". By the text of their letter, they seem to believe that "scam" is libelous because their company is well-rated financially and that they provide reasonable claims service. I concede both these facts. However, I called it a "scam" because there is a big undisclosed cost to their product that was never mentioned in the sales process, and that could only be recognized by its omission in the contract I signed -- that there is nothing in the contract committing them to any time-frame under which to return deposits and excess premiums I have paid, which may well amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. This fact about the contract is confirmed by their customer service staff, who have said further that the typical time-frame to return such over-collections and deposits is 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first of the deposits was made.
So is this a "scam"? I believe that this issue is costly enough, and hard enough to detect, and far enough outside of expected business practices to be called such. You may have your own opinion, but ask yourself -- When you enter into, say, a lease and have to put down a security deposit, is it your reasonable expectation that the landlord has the right in your lease to keep your deposit for 3-7 years (or more) after you move out? /Update
Anyway, let's take a step back and look at this in detail.
First, I need to give a bit of background on how workers comp works. When you are a new company, they assign you an experience rating -- that is a multiplier of your premium based on past loss experience. There is some default starting number that if I remember right, in most states, is a bit over 1.0x. Each year, the workers comp world looks back at your past history and computes a new loss rating -- higher if you have had more payouts, lower if not. Generally it is based on three years experience not counting the last year (so 2-4 years in the past). Your future premiums get multiplied by this loss rating.
Several years ago we had a couple bad injuries that drove our loss number into the 1.7-1.9x area. Neither were really due to a bad safety issue, but both involved workers in their seventies where a minor initial injury led to all sorts of complications. Anyway, my agent at the time calls me one day a couple of weeks before renewal and says that none of the major companies will renew me. This seemed odd to me -- I understood that my recent claims history was not good, but isn't that what the premium multiplier was for? In fact, if my loss history returned to normal, they would make a fortune as I paid high rates based on old losses but had fewer new ones.
Apparently, though, insurance companies have fixed rules that keep them from underwriting higher loss ratings. Probably for the same reason Vegas won't take action on Ivy League football games any more -- just too much variability. I found out later with my new broker we could probably have overcome this, but I learned that too late.
My broker at the time put me into a 3-year program from Applied Underwriters, in part because they were taking everybody. This program was set up differently from most workers comp programs. You had a basic policy, but there was a second (almost indecipherable to laymen) reinsurance agreement that adjusted the rates of the basic policy based on you actual claims. Here is the agreement (pdf) In other words, based on your claims, they would figure up at the end how much you owed and what your premium multiplier would be.
I saw two red flags that I ignored in signing up. 1) The reinsurance agreement was impossible to understand, violating one of my foundational rules that I shouldn't sign things I don't understand. And 2) The rate structure was very suspicious. They touted a rate structure that could go as low as, say, $100,000 a year and was capped around $400,000 a year. But when you pulled out a calculator, the $100,000 was virtually unobtainable. It would require about zero claims. If there were any claims at all, even for a few bandaids, the price would march up to $400,000 really fast. It was the equivalent of a credit card teaser rate, and it should have made me suspicious.
Anyway, I was desperate. For a business like mine, being told I had no workers comp insurance just a few weeks before the old policy ran out was a death sentence. No one would write me or even quote me a policy that fast. So I took the Applied Underwriters offer. Shame on me, I should have worked on this much harder.
I won't bore you further with my voyage of discovery in trying to figure out how this thing works. I will just tell you the results that I have found. There are apparently other companies with similar issues, one of which is documented here:
Applied Underwriter Suit (pdf)Newsletter publisher objected to scan of article, so I have taken it down at their request. Here is a link to roughly the same article.
I spent hours and hours trying to figure out AU's statements. There is a whole set of terminology to learn that is actually not used in most of the rest of the workers comp world. The key page of the statement is page 7, which I will show below because it highlights several of the issues with Applied. Page 7 is the page where the monthly premium is "calculated". I have added the red numbers and arrows for the discussion below.
Here are some of the Applied Underwriter problems:
- Large deposits that must be made each year and may never be returned. You can see that I am making deposits over $40,000 a year. And that is each year. The first year deposit is not returned. The second year and third year are just added to it. And I have found out since I joined this program that they are not contractually obligated to return them in any time frame. Maybe some guy who was hurt in his thirties has a relapse and claims more money when he is 75. Gotta keep your deposit just in case, don't we? The timing of the return of your deposits (and overpaid premiums below) is entirely at their discretion, and that has been confirmed by their customer service staff. In fact, their standard answer is that on average, such monies are not returned to customers for 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first deposits were made.
- Premiums based on the worst of your experience and their estimate of your losses, and they keep the difference for years and years. For those in the same trap as me, I will try to explain the numbers above. The estimated loss pick containment at the top is basically their estimate of your losses. Note that it drives every number on the page and is basically their arbitrary number -- they could have set it anywhere. The loss pick containment to date is just pro rated for the amount of the year that has gone by. The 65% is an arbitrary number. The $25,278 is my actual losses to date. You can see where I point with #2 above, though, that my losses are irrelevant to my premiums. They take the higher of my losses and what is essentially their estimate of my losses and I pay based on that. Note that their higher number is not based on the reserved amounts on actual claims -- the $25,278 includes their reserves. It is just the number they established at the beginning of my policy they think my claims are going to be and gosh darnit they are going to stick to that (and my claims even in my worst year in history were never even half of their estimate). Yes, at the end of the policy if my losses stay low, they owe me money back for all the premium they overcharged me based on their arbitrarily high estimates. But see #1 above -- there is no time horizon under which they have to return the money. They can keep it for years and years.
- The final premium is, after all these calculations, entirely arbitrary. So after this loss calculation (which essentially just defaults to their arbitrarily high estimate and not my actual loss history) they do some premium calculations. These actually sort of make sense if you stare at the agreements for a really long time. But then we get to the line I point to in red labelled 3. It is the actual amount I owe. But it does not foot to any other number on the page. How do they come up with this? They won't say. To anyone. It might as well be arbitrary. I actually had some dead time and took all my reports and tried to regress to a formula they use for this, but I couldn't figure it out. So all the calculation on this page is just a sham, it's the mechanical wizard in the Wizard of Oz. It looks good, but does not actually directly lead to what you are billed.
So I thought I understood my problems. I put in large deposits and overpaid premiums based on arbitrarily high loss estimates they make -- all of which will take me years and years of effort to maybe get back. It turns out that I likely will have a third problem. In the lawsuit linked above, the plaintiff complains that when they left the program after three years, Applied arbitrarily wrote up all their estimated losses on open claims to stratospheric levels and then demanded a large final premium payment at the end. Folks on Yelp complain of the same thing. You should know how this works by now -- the plaintiff will theoretically get all this back someday, maybe, when the claims prove to be less costly, but in the mean time Warren Buffet gets to invest the money for years and years (cost of capital = 0) until it is returned.
This is why I think Applied Underwriters actually likes companies with high lost histories. Rather than costs, losses for them are excuses to over-collect on deposits and premiums -- money that can then be invested and held for years free of charge.
As an aside, I want to thank my new agents at Interwest Insurance for helping decipher all of this. They actually flew a guy in to help me understand this policy. They didn't get me into it, but they are helping me pick up the pieces as best we can.