Endless Litigation Dept. (cont.)

As has been recently reported (Vice, Courthouse News) the arbitral tribunal hearing Chevron’s baseless “denial of justice” claim against the Republic of Ecuador (through which Chevron hopes to put Ecuador “on the hook” for the environmental judgment that private Ecuadorian plaintiffs won against Chevron in Ecuador’s courts) conducted a series of “judicial site inspections” of the abandoned waste pits and other contamination at Chevron’s former oil operations sites in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The transcripts of the inspection proceedings are available here.

For someone who was intimately involved in the judicial inspections process in the original case back in 2005-2006, reading the transcripts is an experience thick with déjà vu. The same scene: roosters crowing, sudden torrential rains, heat and insects, strained jokes about trying to hold it all together in a jungle setting. The same arguments: the open pits, the hidden pits, the produced water dumping system, the bogus remediation; and from Chevron: the RAP, the RAP, the RAP (i.e., the settlement which Chevron pretends released it from taking responsibility for the majority of the contamination, except that the private claimants in the Ecuador case were not party to it and in fact it expressly stated that it did not apply to their claims).

In between now and then, the same sites — ridiculously obviously contaminated sites — have been examined again and again and again and again, by government investigators, expert teams for various parties in various litigations, various human rights delegations, and countless celebrity and other observers. How long can Chevron continue to drag the world through this charade?

After enough people visit, will we at some point reach a critical mass? As Ted Folkman at Letters Blogatory astutely writes, “there is a bit of res ipsa loquitur that works in favor of the Ecuadoran position” when a person leaves the safe confines of the United States (where Chevron has successfully tainted the story of the Ecuador case with a blizzard of false allegations of fraud and wrongdoing) and arrives to see the pits themselves in all their horrible glory. “There are, of course, experts on both sides of the case, but when you are at the pit, you can see the oil, and a layman can simply look at the topography of the site and see how the oil would likely migrate.”

In fact, with all respect to Ted, what most people see is not migration of contaminants, but toxicity, sickness, and death, especially if their visit is combined to any degree with discussions with local residents about their invariably tragic family histories. To the extent most peoples’ thoughts stray into the legal realm, they typically start with questions of criminality, recklessness, negligence, and a commensurate call for justice.

A decade ago, shortly after I left full-time work on the case, Chevron made a public promise that it would inflict “a lifetime of appellate and collateral litigation” on the plaintiff communities if they dared to continue with their case and push it through to judgment. One cannot argue that an oil company like Chevron is not wise in the ways of the world and the halls of power; it knew it could inflict just such a fate, and it has.

Chevron has laid its cards on the table. It knows what it is doing. Now it’s our turn — “our” most broadly, basically everyone in society who is not Chevron or a reflection of its bottomless self-interest. What are we doing? The world will have to change if this company is going to change course. Maybe it is changing already.

Just clean it up, for f***s sake

What’s Chevron’s Ecuador Play in Canada?

The big news in the ever-ongoing Chevron/Ecuador dispute is the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada rejecting Chevron’s ultra-preliminary attack on the Ecuadorian communities’ ability to seek to enforce their historic $9 billion environmental judgment against the company in Canada. The attack was bogus from the get-go; a little noticed fact is that no Canadian court embraced the theory that Chevron ultimately presented to the Supreme Court, but based on a strange petition/counter-petition process it ended up there anyway.

The frustrating part is that this victory — a huge one for the communities, at Canada’s highest court — really only starts the process at what should have been the beginning. Through aggressive (to the point of abusive) lawyering, Chevron wins another three years time evading the Ecuador judgment and wastes a ton of the communities’ resources in the process. A sadly familiar story in this case.

That said, beginning the enforcement process genuinely in Canada is undeniably huge. The litigation shenanigans will continue, but Chevron’s options are dwindling. Chevron is particularly scared of Canada because certain unique features make their primary line of defense — the “corporate veil,” or in Chevron’s case, no less than seven corporate veils between Chevron Corp. and its Canadian assets — potentially irrelevant, a true Maginot Line.

Chevron recently filed its “answer” to the enforcement petition, which outlines its strategy ahead. Some early comments are provided by The Chevron Pit. Chevron’s approach is pretty much as expected. Chevron wants to relitigate every issue that it lost in Ecuador, including issues that are clearly questions of Ecuadorian law for the Ecuadorian courts. Good luck with that.

It is also jump-starting the ol’ “demonization” campaign, in which the company tried to taint the Ecuador judgment and the communities with allegations of bribery and fraud, but did so by relying of paid-for “fact” testimony from a ridiculously corrupt witness (whose testimony has now been disproven by forensic analysis), and by blowing out of proportion a handful of controversial issues in the Ecuador trial process — issues that were raised and addressed on multiple layers of appeal in Ecuador.

As long as the system as a whole got it right — and Ecuador’s system certainly did so in this case — complaints about this or that at the trial level have no bearing on the final judgment and are likely to be ignored by Canadian courts.

The fact that, in Canada, Chevron lawyers appear to be “going all in” on the corrupt bribery witness despite his disproven testimony, and that fact that he was an embarrassment in a related arbitration proceeding, is revealing of just how few options Chevron has left. They would have left this witness in the dust and moved on by now, if they could.

Chevron’s infamous “fight it out on the ice” strategy continues slip-sliding away

 

Now we may perhaps to begin, yes?

[ Reprinted from CSRwire ]

Canada Supreme Court To Decide Friday Whether Chevron Assets Can Be Targeted by Ecuadorian Villagers

OTTAWA, Sep. 02 /CSRwire/ – In a decision that could have important implications for human rights victims worldwide, Canada’s Supreme Court on Friday will announce whether Ecuadorian villagers can proceed in Canadian courts to try to seize Chevron’s assets to force the oil giant to comply with a $9.5 billion Ecuadorian environmental judgment.

If the court decides in favor of the villagers, the decision could pose a substantial risk to Chevron’s large asset base in Canada. The oil giant owns offshore oil fields, a tar sands investment, and a refinery in the country that collectively are worth an estimated $15 billion and produce an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion annually in profits.

The decision also could pave the way for human rights victims to more easily obtain compensation from private companies that try to hide their assets in overseas subsidiaries as a way to evade paying civil judgments in environmental cases, according to experts and others following the two-decade litigation. Continue reading

Last blog up on HuffPo

Under the title “Chevron’s ‘Fight It Out On The Ice’ Strategy For Ecuador Case Is Slipping, Fast.”  First in a series of posts in the coming weeks, ahead of the Apr. 20 oral argument on Chevron’s RICO case before the Second Circuit, that will examine how the disturbing and largely trumped-up campaign to taint Chevron’s Ecuadorian victims and the environmental judgment they won as “fraudulent” is steadily falling apart, and what it means…

Cracks In Chevron’s “Fight On The Ice” Strategy

Nearly a decade ago, Chevron Corporation issued a public statement warning the Ecuadorian communities who were plaintiffs in a massive environmental case against the company in Ecuador that they would face “a lifetime of appellate and collateral litigation” if they continued to vigorously pursue their claims.  A few years later, perhaps thinking they hadn’t been understood, Chevron sharpened the message, telling a reporter on record that regarding the claims, which demanded compensation sufficient to remediate hundreds of pond-sized pits of oil sludge and the effects of the 18 billion gallons of wastewater that even the company admits it dumped during 25 years of operations in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the company would “fight until hell freezes over . . . and then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”

I’ve worked with the Ecuadorian communities on the plaintiffs’ side of the case for over a decade now.  Though I was on a sabbatical of sorts when Chevron first made these promises, I was aware of them but didn’t think much except that it confirmed my beliefs that the company was fundamentally piggish and brutal and would need to undergo deep reforms before it would do the right thing.

Looking back, I see things more clearly.  For Chevron, hell froze over on February 14, 2011, the day a small provincial court in Ecuador—the sort of country Chevron in its heyday used to treat like a private hacienda—issued a massive environmental verdict against the company.  The “ice,” which had been gathering for a year or so as Chevron saw the verdict coming, then followed.  The scale itself is impressive, epochal: dozens of lawsuits against the Ecuadorians’ lawyers and consultants (including myself); lawsuits against every funder of the Ecuadorians’ effort, including in faraway jurisdictions like Gibraltar; a “racketeering” lawsuit against the case’s leaders that the company pushed all the way through a seven-week federal court bench trial in New York; a decade of ferocious litigation against the government of Ecuador itself, under the U.S.-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty, claiming a “denial of justice” in the refusal by Ecuador’s executive branch to quash the case.  All this advanced by a team that included, Chevron told a federal judge a few years back, several dozen law firms and literally thousands of lawyers and operatives.

But the “ice” was more than that—colder, more biting, and more isolating than I could have imagined.  It was, at bottom, a wrenching recasting of the global public narrative about the Ecuador environmental case, framing the life-long social justice activists who led the case as a greedy and villainous fraudsters, the affected communities themselves as either “irrelevant” (as Chevron has described them) or criminally complicit, and Chevron itself as the true victim of the whole situation.

Chevron’s success in propagating this counter-narrative (a fundamentally false one in my view, for reasons I’ll get to) was either stunning or inevitable, depending on what you think about the depth of corporate influence in our society.  Admittedly it was sped along its way by some mistakes and some hubris by the Ecuadorian team—although nothing that couldn’t be, and in fact was, “cured” by appropriate processes in the environmental case itself, and certainly nothing in comparison to what even Chevron’s staunchest supporters admit in private that you’d likely find if you were allowed to scrutinize its private files to the same extent as was allowed as to the Ecuadorian side.  Chevron’s success, while certainly propagated in “traditional” means by Chevron’s juggernaut public relations and government lobbying efforts, really hit its stride through innovative deployment of private institutions not traditionally associated with public narrative processes, such as white shoe law firms like Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, and, through them, its successful deployment public institutions including and no less than the court system itself.

I recognize this is a striking claim.  The court system did not just roll over for Chevron—plenty of courts pushed back, rejecting Chevron’s “crime-fraud” claims against the Ecuadorians and even calling out the problematic First Amendment implications of Chevron’s counter-attack.  But Chevron’s deployment of overwhelming resources changed the usual calculus of courts in the public debate.  The company filed so many lawsuits that it was able to use its massive PR machine to highlight its successes and spin away its losses.  It filed so many lawsuits it was able to “audition” literally dozens of judges, so that when it found a winner—such as the New York judge who began a preliminary hearing by railing against the “giant game” he thought the Ecuadorians were playing and bemoaning the influence of “imaginat[ive]” plaintiffs lawyers on the national character (“You know, we used to do a lot of other things [in this country]”)—it could double-down and throw resources in that direction.  A source close to the company estimated two years ago that the lawsuit that Chevron subsequently initiated in front of that New York judge was costing $400 million per year in legal and related fees.

In 2009, Chevron’s lead strategist noted in an internal email that the company’s “long-term strategy” in responding to the Ecuador case was to “demonize” its opponents, in particular Steven Donziger, my longtime colleague and a social justice activist who has dedicated much of his career to the Ecuadorian cause for over two decades now.  If you review the media coverage of the case and Donziger in the last five years, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion: job well done.  I’ve had a lot of support from friends and family over the years I’ve worked on the case, but most of the people who support me, and who I know otherwise support the Ecuadorians in their struggle for justice, don’t even follow it anymore.  They know the contamination is still there, the human suffering is still there.  They just don’t recognize the headlines.  And from some people who used to support the case, or who I would have thought would support the case, there is an icy silence.

But the ice may, finally, be cracking.

A huge driver of the thaw, if it comes, will be what the federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit does with the Ecuadorian’ pending appeal from the “racketeering” judgment against them entered by the aforementioned New York judge last year.  The U.S. media and the public generally, for generally good reasons, has a deep faith in the federal court system.  If the Second Circuit lets the racketeering judgment stand, I and my colleagues, knowing all the facts that the New York judge blocked from coming into the record during the fall 2013 bench trial, will know it as a travesty of justice.  But the rest of the country will see it as a duly considered matter—case closed.  (What courts in the rest of the world would think is an open question.)

But conversely, if the Second Circuit vacates the racketeering judgment—and oh my does it have plenty of good reasons to do so—the significance of Chevron’s racketeering case pivots.  It still remains relevant, but not as a question of what the Ecuadorians did or did not do in Ecuador.  It becomes a question of what Chevron did, on a global scale and at mind-boggling cost, in responding to its Ecuador liability not by taking responsibility but by instigating a massive retaliation campaign against its own victims based in large part on distorted, even invented evidence.  This is not an overstatement: as has been discussed elsewhere and will be detailed in future blogs, Chevron literally paid cash to “fact” witnesses for key testimony that it must have known could not be true, and that emerging evidence may conclusively prove to be untrue.

Our federal courts’ and our society’s willingness to embrace Chevron’s counter-narrative, even temporarily, raises important further questions.  In my view, it speaks to our persistent longing to believe that our society’s most powerful private institutions—not just oil companies and white shoe law firms, but, in other contexts, big banks, media conglomerates, technology companies—are “too big to lie,” are fundamentally good at heart, or otherwise can somehow be trusted to protect the public interest even as they pursue their private ones, without the draining exercise of regulation, enforcement, and constant public vigilance.  It is a longing that gets us into trouble again and again.

The Second Circuit will hear argument in the case on April 20.

There are very good reasons why, just on legal issues alone, the Second Circuit it likely to reverse the racketeering judgment.  After boasting for three years that it would take its racketeering case to a jury, Chevron dropped all its money damages claims on the eve of trial, allowing it to submit the case for decision solely to the “we-used-to-do-things-in-this-country” judge, not a jury.  But dropping damages left Chevron asking for a civil racketeering verdict based on forms of alleged injury more like hurt feelings than the sort of things that federals courts say are necessary for a plaintiff to have “standing” to proceed.  Chevron argues that because it asked for damages at the beginning of the case, it should get a pass on standing even though it later changed its mind.  That one’s not going to work.  Another glaring problem for the Second Circuit is that if Plaintiff Chevron is allowed to use the civil RICO statute as it has, an army of more typical big-money plaintiffs lawyers would use the precedent to bring actions against corporations without the hard work of proving damages, because under RICO they can recover triple attorneys fees even where no damages can be found.  The Second Circuit would turn into a haven for racketeering cases.

The law on this and a ton of other issues is so bad for Chevron that even it has started positioning itself for defeat.  As I noted in an earlier blog, Chevron recently pleaded for the Second Circuit, even if it reverses, to leave a portion of the judgment in place as a “freestanding determination of the facts,” even without legal consequence.  A nice idea—but completely unconstitutional, so long as the normal standards are being applied.  Also very unlikely in light of new developments in the form of new evidence, admittedly outside of the trial court record , which appears to conclusively show that Kaplan got the facts wrong.  Kaplan “found” that Ecuadorian judge Nicolas Zambrano did not author the Ecuadorian trial judgment but took a bribe to put his name on a judgment authored by the plaintiffs.  But a forensic analysis of the Ecuadorian judge’s hard drives apparently shows him writing the judgment, day by day, over the course of the months.  Even though Chevron is likely adapting its fraud theories to the new information as we speak, it is devastating to the company’s counter-narrative across the board.

What’s more, in Chevron’s massive international arbitration directly against the government of Ecuador, it has gotten everything it has asked for from the panel of arbitrators—until last week.  The arbitrators (who are convened by corporate investor complaints, even if they are sometimes appointed by States, meaning that they generally have an incentive to enhance the effectiveness of the arbitration forum for corporations by ruling in their favor) issued a pre-trial decision analyzing what has been Chevron’s primary defense/argument not just in the arbitration but in collateral litigation around the globe—in Ecuador, in New York, in Gibraltar, and in enforcement courts in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina.  The arbitrators concluded that the defense—that the Ecuadorians could not pursue their claims because they were barred by the terms of a 1995 release agreement Chevron worked out with the Ecuadorian government—was lacking.  The result is devastating for Chevron; the arbitration that was started as a way of bolstering its position and influencing the national-court jurisdictions that actually matter, has now turned into a liability in and of itself.  An arbitration trial on Chevron’s “fraud” facts—which as noted, are unraveling—is set to start April 20 before the same arbitrators.

Finally, there are rumors that the Supreme Court of Canada may soon authorize the Ecuadorians to begin a full-bore enforcement effort against Chevron in Canadian courts.  Other efforts to enforce the Ecuadorian environmental judgment in various countries that have been stuck in the ice the last five years are likely to break free and start moving too.

I’ll have more to say on these and other developments as we head into these important dates in April and beyond.