Canada: Tesoro Refining: Fifth Circuit Analyzes Scope Of "Unlawful Taking" And "Forgery" In Commercial Crime Policy's Employee Theft Coverage

Last Updated: September 14 2016
Article by David S. Wilson, Christopher McKibbin and Stuart M. Woody

In our April 14, 2015 post, we analyzed the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Tesoro Refining & Marketing Company LLC v. National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and its implications for what constitutes "unlawful taking" for the purposes of the Employee Theft coverage. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the District Court's grant of summary judgment in favour of National Union.

The Facts

The insured ("Tesoro") was a refiner and marketer of petroleum products. In 2003, Tesoro began selling fuel to Enmex, a petroleum distributor, on credit. The manager of Tesoro's Credit Department, Leavell, managed Enmex's account.

By late 2007, Enmex's credit balance had grown to $45 million, and Leavell (and Tesoro's auditors) became concerned about Enmex's ability to pay down the outstanding debt. In discussions with Tesoro's auditors in December 2007, Leavell represented that the Enmex account was secured by a $12 million letter of credit (LOC).

Between December 2007 and March 2008, a series of documents purporting to be LOCs (and, in one case, a security agreement) were created in Leavell's password-protected drive on Tesoro's server. Leavell provided these to the auditors as evidence of Enmex's creditworthiness.

By September 2008, the Enmex balance had reached almost $89 million. In October 2008, a document purporting to be a new $24 million LOC was created on Leavell's drive. A PDF version of this document, with a Bank of America logo added, was created a few days later and saved in the Credit Department's shared folder.

In December 2008, Tesoro presented the $24 million LOC to Bank of America, which confirmed that the LOC was not valid. Tesoro ceased selling fuel to Enmex, and was not paid for some of the fuel it had already sold. Tesoro submitted a crime claim to National Union, alleging that Leavell had forged the LOCs and the security agreement, resulting in Tesoro's loss.

The Employee Theft Coverage

The insuring agreement provided that:

We will pay for loss of or damage to "money", "securities" and "other property" resulting directly from "theft" committed by an "employee", whether identified or not, acting alone or in collusion with other persons.

For the purposes of this Insuring Agreement, "theft" shall also include forgery.

"Theft" was defined as "the unlawful taking of property to the deprivation of the insured." Unlike some other forms of the theft coverage, National Union's insuring agreement defined "theft" to include forgery.

Interpreting the Insuring Agreement

Tesoro contended that the District Court erred in holding that an "unlawful taking", whether by forgery or by other means, was required to create coverage under this insuring agreement. In Tesoro's view, the sentence in the insuring agreement addressing forgery created coverage for losses from any employee forgery, irrespective of whether there was any unlawful taking by the employee.

National Union contended that the employee theft insuring agreement always required proof that an "unlawful taking" had occurred, irrespective of the form of that taking. National Union took the position that the term "include", as used in the sentence addressing forgery, meant that a forgery that is within the category of "theft" is covered, but the insuring agreement does not create coverage for acts of forgery wholly distinct from "theft".

The Court accepted National Union's interpretation, holding that:

Tesoro's interpretation isolates the sentence addressing forgery from its context. Context is key and can in part be provided by a document's title... This insuring agreement is titled "Employee Theft"... When an "Employee Theft" insuring agreement contains a sentence explaining that "theft", a defined term, shall also include forgery, that sentence is making clear that a forgery that leads to "theft" is covered.

The Court also noted that Tesoro's proposed interpretation would nullify the "Acts of Employees" exclusion when applied to the Forgery or Alteration insuring agreement. Such an interpretation would result in the policy excluding all employee forgery involving commercial paper from the Forgery or Alteration insuring agreement, while covering all forms of employee forgery under the Employee Theft insuring agreement.

There was no "Unlawful Taking" by Leavell

Tesoro further contended that, even if it was required to prove an "unlawful taking" under the Employee Theft coverage, it could still do so, insofar as Leavell's conduct met the requirements of the Texas criminal offence of theft (in particular, theft by deception). The Court did not endorse Tesoro's equating of the policy's "unlawful taking" requirement with any act constituting a theft under state criminal law, but accepted it arguendo for the limited purpose of determining whether summary judgment could be properly granted in favour of National Union.

The Court noted that proving theft by deception would require Tesoro to show that the forged security documents were a substantial or material factor in inducing it to continue selling fuel to Enmex. The Court held that the available evidence did not support that conclusion. Indeed, Tesoro had continued selling fuel to Enmex during periods in which it knew that the receivable was not secured. Thus, Tesoro could not demonstrate that it was induced to do anything differently as a result of the alleged deception. On that basis, the Court held that summary judgment had been properly granted to National Union.


For those Employee Theft coverages that include forgery within the meaning of theft, the Fifth Circuit's decision in Tesoro Refining provides guidance as to how to interpret and apply the provision, including ascertaining whether the alleged forgery actually induced the insured to do anything it would not have done in the absence of the forgery. The Court's finding on causation is significant, notwithstanding that it came in the context of analyzing the Texas criminal offence of theft by deception.

As a general observation, we suggest that caution be exercised in relying on criminal law provisions and concepts as an interpretive guide to fidelity policies. In Tesoro Refining, the Court made it clear that it was analyzing the Texas provision solely because Tesoro had advanced the argument as a basis for denying summary judgment to National Union. Other courts in the United States and Canada have cautioned against too easily equating fidelity coverage concepts and criminal law concepts. In Iroquois Falls Community Credit Union Limited v. Co-operators General Insurance Company, for example, the Court of Appeal for Ontario overturned the motions court's grant of summary judgment to an insured credit union, specifically rejecting the holding that the credit union had to have notice of criminal conduct before it was obligated to put its insurer on notice.

More broadly, the Court's overall interpretive approach (reading and interpreting the policy as a whole, including the headings and related insuring agreements and exclusions) is of assistance to fidelity insurers in rebutting arguments which seek to create ambiguity by interpreting a particular sentence (or even a subset of words within a sentence) without regard to the intended scope of coverage as evidenced by the headings and related insuring agreements and exclusions in the policy.

Tesoro Refining & Marketing Company LLC v. National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 13838 (5th Cir.)

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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David S. Wilson
Christopher McKibbin
Stuart M. Woody
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