A federal judge has struck down part of a law that regulates public adjusters in Maine.

Public adjusters are third-party contractors who can be hired to represent policyholders in negotiating insurance claims. They are licensed and regulated by states. In Maine, a public adjuster cannot solicit or offer a contract to a client for 36 hours after a fire or other property loss. Adjusters who work for the insurance company are free to contact the policyholder immediately.

The National Fire Adjustment Co., which has an office in Alfred, sued the Maine Bureau of Insurance last year. In its complaint, the company argued the ban violates free speech rights. The state argued the ban is necessary to protect consumers from uninvited contact when they are vulnerable after an accident or other traumatic event.

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker ruled this month that the ban on solicitation itself is unconstitutional, but he allowed the prohibition on offering a contract to remain in place.

“In my view, the interests in professional regulation and privacy do not support the temporary ban on solicitation speech,” Walker wrote in his Jan. 8 order. “While it is understandable that many individuals would prefer not to receive solicitation of this kind shortly after suffering a loss, there are others who may welcome and benefit from the public adjuster’s message. Those who are offended by such activity are, of course, free to express their view and turn away unwelcome callers. Our free speech rights demand a certain degree of personal fortitude.”

Walker added that the ban on offering a contract is still a protection for consumers.

“In fashioning a remedy, the court can wield a carving knife rather than an ax,” he wrote.

Attorney Valerie Wicks, who represented the public adjuster firm, said she is happy with the partial ruling. She declined to comment on the possibility of an appeal.

“Judge Walker’s First Amendment ruling protects Maine consumers who want and deserve help recovering from an unexpected tragedy like a fire or a windstorm,” Wicks said. “Judge Walker hit the nail on the head when he ruled that the government should not be standing in the way of the public’s right to expert services of public adjusters.”

Marc Malon, spokesman for the Maine Attorney General’s Office, released a short statement via email.

“The decision today was a split ruling which struck two words from statute,” Malon wrote. “The ruling preserves what we consider strong consumer protections in the statute. Otherwise, the case is still in its appeal period and we have no further comment at this time.”

An annual report from the state Bureau of Insurance shows there were more than 15,000 active licenses for adjusters in Maine at the end of 2017. Fewer than 800 are residents of the state. Court documents show the National Fire Adjustment Co. has two licensed employees in Maine, and the judge said he did not see any evidence that the firm made false statements to clients or violated the law.

It is not clear how many other states have similar bans in place, but Wicks said she believes the ruling could lead to legal challenges elsewhere.

Megan Gray can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mainemegan

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