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Harvard Sues Insurer to Recoup Legal Fees After Admissions Lawsuit Exceeds $25 Million

Harvard College sued its excess insurance company for allegedly violating its contract with the University by refusing to cover Harvard's legal fees related to the lawsuit against Harvard's admissions practices.
Harvard College sued its excess insurance company for allegedly violating its contract with the University by refusing to cover Harvard's legal fees related to the lawsuit against Harvard's admissions practices. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Vivi E. Lu and Dekyi T. Tsotsong, Crimson Staff Writers

After racking up more than $25 million in legal fees defending its admissions practices against anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, Harvard filed suit against its excess insurance company Friday for allegedly refusing to cover legal fees in the ongoing SFFA case.

Harvard College wrote in a brief filed with the Massachusetts District Court that it had exceeded the $25 million policy limit allotted under its primary liability insurance policy with American International Group, which triggered a secondary insurance policy it held with Zurich American Insurance Company. Harvard’s attorneys allege Zurich was contractually obligated to cover the remaining legal fees, but has failed to do so.

Though the brief did not specify the amount that the College is requesting Zurich reimburse, a minimum of $75,000 in controversy is necessary for the Court to review the case. The University is also asking the court to compel Zurich to cover future legal fees in the admissions suit up to its policy limit of $15 million.

Zurich has denied responsibility for the “defense costs” Harvard has incurred from the ongoing SFFA lawsuit, claiming the College failed to provide sufficient prior notice, according to Harvard’s brief. Harvard’s attorneys wrote that Zurich “had knowledge of” the claim due to widespread national media coverage.

The College officially reported the SFFA suit to Zurich around May 2017 — when its initial insurance limit under AIG was “far from being exhausted” — yet Zurich denied said claim in a letter on Oct. 25, 2017.

According to the brief, the College has paid all premiums and complied with all conditions under Zurich’s policy, and the filing argues the insurance company is obligated to pay the full amount of defense costs beyond the limits of Harvard’s primary policy. The primary policy with AIG has a $25 million limit and $2.5 million deductible.

Zurich spokesperson Robyn Ziegler declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. College spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment.

SFFA first filed suit against Harvard in 2014, arguing that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions practices discriminate against Asian American applicants and violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans institutions that receive federal funds from discriminating “on the grounds of race, color, or national origin.”

Massachusetts District Court judge Allison D. Burroughs — the same judge now assigned to the lawsuit against Zurich — ruled in favor of Harvard in October 2019, and the First Circuit Court affirmed the ruling in November 2020. SFFA petitioned the Supreme Court in February to review the decision and the Supreme Court delayed reviewing the petition in June, electing to ask for the views of the solicitor general.

—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at vivi.lu@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Dekyi T. Tsotsong can be reached at dekyi.tsotsong@thecrimson.com.

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