Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Judge Lewis Kaplan entered judgment today in favor of Chevron in the long-running dispute concerning environmental liability for oil pollution in the Oriente region of Ecuador. The court, after a bench trial, found that plaintiffs' attorney Steven Donziger and his team engaged in fraud and corruption in obtaining a $9.5 billion judgment in Ecuador. Judge Kaplan ruled that the Ecuador judgment is unenforceable in the United States and that Donziger may not benefit from the judgment. Undoubtedly, this dispute isn't over, as Donziger surely will appeal to the Second Circuit. And the outcome cannot have been much of a suprise to the parties, given the clarity of Judge Kaplan's views based on his past rulings in this dispute. But by any measure, today's judgment is a huge moment in the Chevron-Ecuador litigation.
Judge Kaplan's opinion -- all 485 pages and 1842 footnotes of it -- is attached here (Download ChevronSDNYopinion030414). And the judgment, which spells out exactly what the court ordered, is here (Download ChevronSDNYjudgment030414). Judge Kaplan found that Donziger and his team submitted fraudulent evidence, used a partisan as a supposedly impartial expert, and offered to bribe the judge. The opinion does not mince words:
Upon consideration of all of the evidence, including the credibility of the witnesses – though several of the most important declined to testify – the Court finds that Donziger began his involvement in this controversy with a desire to improve conditions in the area in which his Ecuadorian clients live. To be sure, he sought also to do well for himself while doing good for others, but there was nothing wrong with that. In the end, however, he and the Ecuadorian lawyers he led corrupted the Lago Agrio case. They submitted fraudulent evidence. They coerced one judge, first to use a court-appointed, supposedly impartial, “global expert” to make an overall damages assessment and, then, to appoint to that important role a man whom Donziger hand-picked and paid to “totally play ball” with the [Lago Agrio plaintiffs]. They then paid a Colorado consulting firm secretly to write all or most of the global expert’s report, falsely presented the report as the work of the court-appointed and supposedly impartial expert, and told half-truths or worse to U.S. courts in attempts to prevent exposure of that and other wrongdoing. Ultimately, the [Lago Agrio plaintiff] team wrote the Lago Agrio court’s Judgment themselves and promised $500,000 to the Ecuadorian judge to rule in their favor and sign their judgment. If ever there were a case warranting equitable relief with respect to a judgment procured by fraud, this is it.
The ruling does not purport to bar enforcement of the judgment outside the United States. Rather, it bars enforcement of the judgment in any U.S. court, and in Judge Kaplan's words, it "prevent[s] Donziger and the two LAP Representatives ... from profiting in any way from the egregious fraud that occurred here." The plaintiffs have sought to enforce the Ecuadorean judgment in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina; it will be interesting to see what effect the SDNY decision might have on enforcement of the judgment in those countries.
In the SDNY litigation, Chevron asked the court to focus on the conduct of the plaintiffs' lawyers, while Donziger wanted to focus on the company's environmental liability for harm in the Oriente region of Ecuador. Judge Kaplan, in ringing language about the integrity of the judicial process, made it clear where he stands:
The issue here is not what happened in the Orienté more than twenty years ago and who, if anyone, now is responsible for any wrongs then done. It instead is whether a court decision was procured by corrupt means, regardless of whether the cause was just. An innocent defendant is no more entitled to submit false evidence, to coopt and pay off a court-appointed expert, or to coerce or bribe a judge or jury than a guilty one. So even if Donziger and his clients had a just cause – and the Court expresses no opinion on that – they were not entitled to corrupt the process to achieve their goal.
The painful irony of the Chevron-Ecuador litigation is this: The plaintiffs originally brought their claims in the United States -- in the Southern District of New York. They were dismissed on grounds of forum non conveniens. In other words, the U.S. legal system told the plaintiffs that they should litigate this dispute in Ecuador. Which is exactly what they did. And they won big. And today the Southern District of New York has told the plaintiffs that their Ecuador judgment is corrupt and unenforceable. As I have written elsewhere, the forum non conveniens dismissal made sense in this case. And parties must be able to challenge the enforceability of judgments on grounds of fraud and corruption. But if this is how the Chevron-Ecuador litigation ends (which remains to be seen), isn't there something deeply unsatisfying and mind-blowingly inefficient about such an ending to a two-decade litigation over serious environmental claims?