A new documentary largely successfully avoids the infinite distractions generated by Chevron’s colossal retaliatory litigation campaign and re-focuses back on what happened–and what is happening today– in Ecuador…
Simon Taylor, Co-founder and Director of Global Witness and winner of the Skoll Award among others, has an unflinching blog on up on the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre on Chevron’s vicious retaliatory litigation campaign against its own contamination victims in Ecuador and their lawyer, Steven Donziger:
Chevron has lost this fight. It has lost the legal fight in Ecuador (the jurisdiction it fought to be heard in, but which it now denigrates), where multiple courts have re-affirmed the judgement against Chevron and the multi-billion-dollar compensation penalty it must now pay. It has also lost the fight in the public domain, where its legal strategy seems to be a vindictive effort, by all means, to attack its opponents rather than be held accountable for its liabilities. This charade recently continued with a legal attack, via the New York Bar Grievance Committee, which then applied to court, succeeding in suspending the law licence for the Ecuadorian community’s US lawyer, Steven Donziger – a process which took place like a summary execution, with no hearing, and no opportunity for the provision of evidence. The bar designated Donziger an “immediate threat to the public order” – this about a man who graduated in the same law school class as President Barack Obama, and in his 25 years of law practice, has never received a single complaint.
Taylor goes on to describe some of the many reasons why Chevron’s claims against Donziger and the Ecuadorians are corrupt unreliable, as myself and many others have done. But the blog is more important for its attention to the broader context–which Taylor speaks to on the basis of two decades of experience investigating the extractives sectors–than on the specific details of the retaliation, egregious though they may be.
It is increasingly clear to me how the core of any realistic solution to the problem of “the new corporate playbook” of retaliation against human rights defenders must keep a focus on the forest, even when discussing individual trees. This goes against the instincts of many advocates, who know that drilling-down on the details of individual abuses is typically the best strategy both for garnering public attention and concretizing the human rights issues at stake.
But complex corporate retaliation cases (instances of SLAPPs, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are different, and the modality of our response must be different too, for structural reasons.
While the ultimate purpose of a SLAPP is intimidation, it succeeds as much by way of distraction as by attack. A SLAPP is a play to affect the larger public discourse, not just (or not at all) to achieve a judicial outcome. Merely dragging the attention and miscellaneous anxieties of the public (and the targeted defendants) into the muck of the SLAPPer’s exaggerated, manufactured, decontextualized claims counts as a victory, even if the audience comes away disgusted with the SLAPP. The victory is distraction and drainage of time and resources, but also more than that.
Every advocate works to properly frame and promote her advocacy. Every advocate desperately competes for attention in a hyper-competitive environment of contemporary injustices and responsive causes, ideas, approaches. Every advocate I know is flooded with obligations, commitments, ambitions–there is too much work out there, in our moment, needing to be done.
A sophisticated corporate SLAPP can poison advocacy on all these dimensions with little regard to the merits. The corporation swaggeringly deposits itself not just on the advocate’s daily to-do list but also into the advocate’s public-facing identity and messaging. While advocates can transform the SLAPP’s presence in their frame to their advantage–as illustrating the vitality of their challenge to entrenched interests, for example–it cannot be removed from the frame. And while sometimes a SLAPP will generate its own attention, more often it is stealing from what allotment of public concern an advocate can realistically expect in total. Thus even where the public focuses on the bogus SLAPP and comes away disgusted, the victory can be hollow for the advocate’s underlying work.
Also, responding to bogus claims requires time and resources (lawyers, experts, document processing and other legal burdens) that many advocates just don’t have, which means they can drown in the muck of even the most meritless of claims. The truth does not just prevail on its own dime, at least not in the US legal system. Additionally, even the most bogus SLAPPs can put enormous emotional weight on targeted defendants, as I hope to explore in future writing.
Advocates know all these uncomfortable realities. Which means they can be intimidated (“chilled,” to put it more gently) by the prospect of meritless claims. They will steer clear, when they can, of corporations and controversies that threaten to muck up the delicate art of framing and advocating that they are engaged in.
Because a SLAPP is fundamentally a bid for attention and distraction, we must be careful in how we respond to new (and old) corporate attacks on advocates. Entering a corporate SLAPP frame even to dismantle it may be conceding too much. Sometimes it will be important to focus, as Taylor largely does, on contextual factors such as the opportunism of the attack (the extent to which it conveniently serves the SLAPPer’s larger strategic purposes), the reliability of the SLAPPer as a “prosecutor” of its claims, and similar.
An important new Anti-SLAPP movement is emerging. @SLAPPtaskforce #protecttheprotest. It is time for powerful advocacy, but also a time for analysis and conversation about what works and why. Anti-SLAPP efforts are not new. They have, however, been largely ineffective. We need to be looking deeper to find out why and guide our efforts going forward.
[ From TheFirstNationsCanada.com ]
In a Canadian court, Chevron is trying to block submission of a legal brief over how the company’s attempt to evade paying a $9.5 billion environmental judgment in Ecuador violates both Canadian and international law regarding the rights of indigenous peoples.
In a submission before the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto, Ecuadorian rainforest communities cite the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in support of their lawsuit to collect the Chevron debt in Canada. The judgment against Chevron was affirmed unanimously in 2013 by Ecuador’s highest court.
A hearing over Chevron’s attempt to block the new argument is scheduled for January 16 before the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto. If the submission is allowed, the Ecuadorians plan to use the U.N. Declaration during a critically important appellate hearing scheduled for April that will help determine whether they can seize the assets of a Chevron subsidiary in Canada to force the company to comply with the Ecuador judgment.
“Chevron’s attempt to deny the latest legal petition concerning indigenous rights from being heard is gutless and a sign of the company’s increasing desperation,” said Patricio Salazar, the lead Ecuadorian lawyer for the affected communities.
“The arguments that Chevron is trying to suppress outline in clear terms the numerous ways in which the company has violated international law by polluting indigenous ancestral lands and then deliberately obstructed legitimate efforts to seek compensation through the courts,” said Salazar.
In the legal brief, the Ecuadorian communities cite several provisions of the United Nations Declaration to support their lawsuit to seize Chevron assets in Canada. These include “the right to … prompt decisions through just and fair procedures for the resolution of conflicts” and “fair and equitable compensation” for their territories that have been damaged by oil extraction and other environmental harms.
The U.N. General Assembly approved the Declaration On The Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 by the overwhelming vote of 144-4. The document since has been adopted as domestic law by both Canada and Ecuador, but it obviously did not exist for several years after the litigation against Chevron began in 1993.
Chevron, which sold its assets in Ecuador during the trial, recently had its General Counsel threaten the Ecuadorian communities with a “lifetime of litigation” if they persist in pursing their claims. The case has lasted a whopping 24 years largely because of Chevron’s forum shopping and use of at least 60 law firms and 2,000 legal personnel to file thousands of procedural motions to delay the process at almost every important juncture.
Chevron’s attempt to deny the Ecuadorians the right to file arguments based on indigenous rights – as distinct from simply filing its own legal brief to oppose it – is unusually aggressive, although not surprising given the company’s long record of trying to undermine the claims of the communities. Chevron was found guilty by three layers of courts of Ecuador of having deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic oil waste as a cost-saving measure, causing a spike in cancer rates and creating a public health catastrophe. Conditions are so bad that locals call the area the “Amazon Chernobyl”.
For more than two decades, Chevron has tried to block the Ecuadorian communities who live in the Amazon from pressing their claims. The latest Chevron maneuver is to assert that its assets in Canada are immune from collection because they are held by a wholly-owned subsidiary. The communities won the judgment after a hard-fought trial that lasted from 2003 to 2011 and produced 105 technical evidentiary reports relied on by the court to confirm Chevron’s responsibility for the dumping […]
[ Also up on HuffPost ]
With news that Chevron is aggressively pursuing a $32 million claim against human rights attorney and activist Steven Donziger, it appears we are entering perhaps the ugliest phase of the ugliest corporate countersuit in recent memory—a “vengeance phase” that the company has long been preparing for. The claim is being made in the Chevron RICO case, the oil company’s abusive “SLAPP” lawsuit against Donziger and the victims of its own massive pollution of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
I am also part of the team battling Chevron and have written about the case before, but as quick background: in 2011, Chevron lost an exhaustive 8-year environmental litigation in Ecuador arising on its horrendous operations practices in the country in decades past, and was hit with a $9 billion clean-up liability judgment. In response, it threatened the Ecuadorian indigenous people who had sued it with a “lifetime of collateral litigation” and made good on that promise by bringing a civil RICO or “racketeering” suit against them, falsely claiming the whole environmental case was a “sham.” (You can see pictures and read descriptions of this so-called “sham” here, here, here, here, here…)
But the RICO case wasn’t fundamentally against the Ecuadorian contamination victims, who, the company knew, were and are too sympathetic to carry the full weight of the attacks that Chevron needs to support its ultimate goal of simply not paying an environmental judgment that has now been unanimously affirmed by Ecuador’s Supreme Court. Instead Chevron focused its firepower on Donziger.
Why? Donziger has worked in the trenches of global social justice movements and domestic criminal justice reform his entire career, and he is on the record with some “pointed” views about the intersection of law and power politics. More importantly for Chevron strategists, Donziger was an American and had a personal style that they realized they could use to paint the entire environmental case as being led—or “masterminded, in Chevron’s attack-speak—by the “plaintiffs’ lawyer” bogeyman that decades of propaganda by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch bothers’ network have now trained the U.S. public to resent on sight.
An internal Chevron email from 2009 neatly sums up what the author, a leading Chevron strategist, calls the company’s “long-term strategy” for the Ecuador case: “demonize Donziger.”
[ Also up on HuffPost ]
Okay folks, the briefs are in. (And online, except Chevron’s opposition, which I’ve seen but which Chevron seems to be hiding from the internet.) Our side will still file a reply, but nonetheless it’s go time on the petition to the Supreme Court to review the shameful U.S. lower court judgments in Chevron’s unapologetically corrupt RICO attack on its Ecuadorian contamination victims and their lawyer, Steven Donziger.
The Donziger/Ecuadorian brief is here. Necessarily, its arguments are limited to the narrow legal grounds that justify the Supreme Court’s discretionary intervention at this point. (The Supreme Court receives around 8,000 petitions each year and agrees to hear on 60-80 of them, or less than 1%). Nonetheless, it sets out two strong reasons for review: (1) the disturbing implications of allowing a losing party in foreign litigation like Chevron to use the RICO statute to launch a collateral attack in its “chosen forum,” i.e. its home-country courts, and (2) of allowing a party to sue in RICO solely for “injunctive” relief. This latter argument is significant because a party can demand injunctive relief without having to present its case to a jury. In this case, Chevron dropped all its money damages claims on the eve of trial so that only Judge Kaplan (the notoriously biased district court judge who stated on the record that Chevron was “a company of considerable importance to our economy” and that the Ecuador case was the product of the “imagination” of “American lawyers”) would have the power to decide the case, not a jury.
Subsequently, a variety of scholars and civil society groups filed briefs outlining broader and yet more disturbing implications of allowing Chevron’s collateral attack to stand. For example, one group of leading organizations such as Friends of the Earth stated:
[We] regularly engage in First Amendment-protected activities similar to those that were found to be predicate acts under RICO in this case. [If the case is allowed to go forward, our] exercise of [our] First Amendment rights of free speech, association, and petitioning government will be severely chilled by the very real possibility that [we] will have to mount costly defenses to retaliatory litigation brought by deep-pocketed corporations whose conduct Amici publicly oppose.
Another group of organizations took a closer look at the deeply corrupt nature of the “evidence” that Chevron used to support its core claims in the case, such as the claim that there was a bribery agreement–a claim solely supported by the testimony of a “fact” witness, Alberto Guerra, to whom Chevron directed over $2 million in cash and benefits. (Paying fact witnesses for their testimony is illegal.) See more here, here, here, and here.
The Republic of Ecuador also filed a brief condemning the process of U.S. courts, in particular highlighting how U.S. courts repeatedly (but not surprisingly) misunderstood Ecuadorian law and procedure. In his 500-page opinion, the U.S. trial judge went on and on about how this or that was a “fraud” on the Ecuadorian court, under Ecuadorian law, that required the heroic efforts of a U.S. judge to step in and save the day. Please. Ecuador’s Supreme Court, the real expert in Ecuadorian law, considered the exact same allegations and summed up the reality of the situation:
[Chevron] never demonstrated fraud, which it has been claiming without any legal support. We reiterate that it has not proven any omission or violation of procedure that would give rise to the nullity sought. [Chevron’s] incessant harping in this regard departs from procedural good faith.
Just as important as all the briefs is the recent release of a damning new Report highlighting the corrupt foundations of Chevron’s RICO case (e.g., its reliance on Guerra despite sign after sign of his corruption and falsity), and providing detailed responses to all the various secondary smears and allegations in the “demonization” campaign (Chevron’s own words) that Chevron used to drive hysteria and momentum in order to get the case over the finish line.
The report paints an ugly picture of U.S. courts embracing, tacitly adopting, or even just tolerating extreme corruption and foul play by a U.S. company in its blatantly self-serving and out-of-bounds legal attack against an historic human rights case. Why would U.S. courts do this? There are surely some long and complicated answers to this question, but also some simple ones. Consider this quote by the district judge (Lewis A. Kaplan, effectively chosen by Chevron to hear the case), stated out loud from the bench in the opening days of the RICO case:
[W]e are dealing here with a company of considerable importance to our economy that employs thousands all over the world, that supplies a group of commodities, gasoline, heating oil, other fuels and lubricants on which every one of us depends every single day. I don’t think there is anybody in this courtroom who wants to pull his car into a gas station to fill up and finds that there isn’t any gas there because these folks [the Ecuadorians] have attached it in Singapore or wherever else [as part of enforcing their judgment].
It’s just dumbfounding how biased this is–and just ridiculous. That the judge’s desire to protect Chevron could be driven to such levels of ridiculousness speaks to the depth of the bias. Or consider this quote, also from the bench in a related proceeding before the RICO case even began:
The imagination of American lawyers is just without parallel in the world. It is our one absolutely overwhelming comparative advantage against the rest of the world, apart from medicine. You know, we used to do a lot of other things. Now we cure people and we kill them with interrogatories. It’s a sad pass. But that’s where we are. And Mr. Donziger [with the Ecuador judgment] is trying to become the next big thing in fixing the balance of payments deficit. I got it from the beginning.
Boy, you couldn’t see where this case was going, could you?
Where it went was a place just as ugly as these quotes suggest–in fact, uglier, because as detailed in the amicus and in the new report, Chevron sunk to new depths by paying Guerra massive sums of money to invent a “bribery” claim, and Judge Kaplan bought it.
What we are left with is a patently disgraceful picture of a swaggering U.S. company which (1) engineered a dismissal of environmental claims to Ecuador, (2) didn’t like the result it got in Ecuador, (3) came running back to its home country courts for protection; and (4) despite a mountain of international and domestic legal principles that should have prevented it, got the U.S. courts to jump to its aid. Specifically, it got a “freestanding determination of the facts” (Chevron’s words) that is unconnected from any specific legal relief but that gives Chevron a new weapon to wave around in enforcement jurisdictions (as the Ecuadorians, as they should and must, go about enforcing their judgment in various countries around the world).
Ultimately, the RICO judgment should not stop any of these enforcement actions, because those non-U.S. courts are perfectly capable of coming to their own views on Chevron’s bogus “fraud” claims and are not going to roll over to corrupt/paid evidence the way U.S. courts did. But it will certainly give Chevron yet more delay, in a case which has already gone on for nearly 25 years while each year more and more victims die and new generations of children are poisoned
The Supreme Court has one last chance to stop Chevron’s self-serving legal circus from becoming law of the land and a stain on U.S. legal history. It has a chance to do something to help the underlying human tragedy.
The odds are overwhelmingly against review as a general matter, but we must still hope.