Prudential Fined $1 Million For Document Destruction
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER
The New York Times
January 7, 1997
After several incidents of document destruction in the Prudential Insurance Company of America's long-running legal dispute over deceptive sales practices, a Federal district judge fined the company $1 million yesterday.
In a 52-page order issued in Newark, Judge Alfred M. Wolin cited destruction of documents in Prudential offices in four cities -- Cambridge, Mass., Des Moines, Jacksonville, Fla., and Syracuse.
Judge Wolin said that although senior executives were aware of an admonition he issued more than a year ago to safeguard materials relevant to the case, they had failed to advise agents properly in field offices across the country.
Arthur F. Ryan, Prudential's chairman and chief executive, said in a statement that the company had issued "numerous directives to our employees regarding document retention," adding that it was important to note that "the court found no willful misconduct" took place.
The judge's sanction came as teams of lawyers were preparing for a hearing in his courtroom next month to debate the fairness of a proposed class-action settlement with Prudential involving 10.7 million life insurance policies sold over 13 years beginning in 1982.
Melvyn I. Weiss, a New York lawyer who has been leading a group of lawyers in seeking that settlement, requested sanctions against the company after Prudential executives disclosed the document destruction in Massachusetts last month.
He said he did not think anybody at Prudential "had the specific intent of injuring a person's ability to get a remedy" under the settlement. But he said that after taking depositions from Mr. Ryan and 56 other company officials, he concluded that the company's directives to employees on the preservation of documents had led to widespread confusion.
"They put a low priority on their obligations in this lawsuit and a high priority in trying to avoid future litigation," Mr. Weiss said.
Mr. Ryan said in his statement that the company would work with lawyers and the court to see that the document loss did not ultimately prove harmful to policyholders.
While it might be impossible to determine just how individual files were altered, Mr. Weiss said he hoped to work out a procedure by which the affected policyholders would receive the most favorable treatment under the proposed settlement.
Prudential executives have acknowledged that some agents -- they say they do not know how many -- improperly persuaded customers to cash in or borrow against their policies to buy new, often more expensive policies.
In the proposed settlement, Prudential has agreed to pay at least $410 million to policyholders. But more than 9,000 policyholders and officials from five states have objected, contending that too much of the burden of proving wrongdoing rests with the people who were misled.
During the summer, Prudential agreed to pay a fine of $35 million after investigators in a task force of more than 30 states detailed the company's deception of customers.
After Judge Wolin imposed the $1 million fine yesterday, Johanna Connolly, an assistant attorney general of Massachusetts, said the action was "a good message to send to Prudential.
"They obviously weren't as careful as they could have been in notifying their employees not to destroy documents," Ms. Connolly said. Massachusetts is one of the five states that have objected to the proposed settlement.