SLAPPs Watch: Bolloré

Great show of support from civil society for the French human rights litigation org Sherpa and others. The self-explanatory paragraph:

Since 2009, more than 20 defamation suits have been brought in France by the Bolloré group or Socfin in response to articles [about protests by rural residents and farmers who live near plantations run by these two companies in West Africa]. The targets of these actions have included France InterFrance CultureFrance InfoFrance 2BastamagLibérationMediapartRue 89, Greenpeace, ReAct and Sherpa. More than 40 reporters, photographers, media lawyers, NGO representatives and media CEOs have been targeted. . . . By bringing defamation suits with such unprecedented frequency – even when they are abandoned mid-course – the Bolloré group is now retaliating in an almost automatic manner to any public reference by outsiders to its African activities.

The scandal is that French courts, like those in every other country, are happily open-for-business for these suits. Modern judicial systems have developed no meaningful defenses to this utterly outrageous, unapologetic abuse of process. (The only meaningful attempt — i.e., anti-SLAPP procedures — has repeatedly shown to provide only the most minimal protection or fail outright.)

We need better thinking on this, and we need it badly.

In the meantime, great to see civil society organizations showing up for each other and for democratic and free-expression principles.

Materially misleading?

An Argentine trial court yesterday declined to continue the recognition action on the Ecuadorian judgment, largely for the same reasons as the Canadian trial judge in 2013 (reasons that were later reversed on appeal), namely the purported lack of any assets of Chevron Corp. (pretending that its Argentine subsidiaries are not its assets) in the jurisdiction.

Chevron’s response in a press release issued today (in a quote attributed directly to its general counsel Hew Pate):

“We are confident that any jurisdiction that observes the rule of law and examines the facts will similarly find the Ecuadorian judgment to be illegitimate and unenforceable.”

This pretty clearly implies that the Argentine court found the Ecuadorian judgment to be “illegitimate,” which is exactly what Chevron is desperate to suggest — i.e., that it’s false “fraud” narrative is picking up steam in enforcement jurisdictions.

But as noted, the Argentine decision is entirely on the purported lack of assets in the jurisdiction. It mentions the word “fraud” only once, as it summarizes Chevron’s own submissions, and it conspicuously ignores Chevron’s arguments in this regard. In fact, it states the following:

“It is important to highlight that it is only the fact of not having established a link between Chevron and the Republic of Argentina that blocks the proceeding of the recognition.

(Cuadra destacar que la sola circunstancia de no haberse acreditado en debida forma un punto de conexión entre la sociedad aquí emplazada “CHEVRON CORPORATION” y la República Argentina obsta a la procedencia del presente Exequátur.)

It thus quite clearly did not “find” the Ecuadorian judgment to be illegitimate. Chevron’s statement can hardly be appreciated as a mistake, given that it so directly serves Chevron’s interest in teh narrative it wants to put out.

Sloppy work, Chevron. May come back to haunt you.

Canadian courts re-emerge from the Land of Make Believe – Just in time…

Great news today, except that the progress it represents is only the reversal of a terrible and unjust turn of events that never should have happened in the first place. Canadian courts have been hearing an action to recognize/enforce the historic Ecuadorian environmental judgment against Chevron Corp. for over five years now. Last month, a Canadian appellate motions judge somehow decided it was “in the interests of justice” to order the indigenous and subsistence farming communities who I represent, and who have been pursuing justice for a total of over 25 years, to post a bond of $1 million for Chevron’s legal fees, if they wanted to continue their case.

Needless to say, the whole plan, devised by Chevron, was to kill off the enforcement action in Canada. Obviously there is no way the communities (or any of the backers who have supported them over the years with much smaller levels of support) could come up with that kind of money. The fact that Chevron came up with the plan was not surprising; the fact that an appellate judge ran with it, “in the interests of justice,” was shocking.

Thankfully there is a “motion to vary” procedure in Canada that allowed the Ecuadorians to take the issue to a separate three-judge panel. Still the odds were against them, because the panel would review the motions judge’s discretionary decision with considerable deference.

The panel reversed — and loudly, in a decision that hopefully charts a new course for proceedings in Canada.

What to make of it?

Ultimately, the enforcement case in Canada is fundamentally about legal fiction versus historical reality. The massive contamination that you can still see at Chevron’s former operations sites is historical reality. The gravesites of (a statistically elevated number of) cancer victims in Ecuador is historical reality. But for over five years, Chevron has been resisting enforcement on the basis of layer upon layer of legal fiction:

  • the fiction that Chevron Corp has “no assets” in Canada, itself based on seven fictional layers of subsidiaries between Chevron and Chevron Corp.;
  • the fiction that Chevron is not responsible for the acts of its merger partner, Texaco;
  • and the countless fictions embedded in its unapologetic “demonization” campaign against the Ecuadorians, which pretends that the environmental case is a “sham” or a “fraud,” that it’s about “American plaintiffs lawyers” not Ecuadorian victims, that the Ecuadorian court system is “incompetent” and “corrupt” (even though Chevron itself had the case sent there), and so on.

The panel chose the side of reality. In its decision, it repeatedly instructs on the importance of “taking a step back” from the narrow legalism that Chevron used to win before the motions judge and instead “conduct a holistic analysis” that “considers all the circumstances of the case.” When all those circumstances are allowed to enter the courtroom, the picture changes dramatically.

  • This case is not about “plaintiffs lawyers.” Little research is required to see that this is an historic case, long supported and driven by social movements in Ecuador and indigenous and non-indigenous allies all over the world. “This is public interest litigation,” the panel acknowledged. So simple, and yet somehow Canadian courts had forgotten this.
  • Chevron doesn’t need its legal fees paid. How obvious is this? And yet, nary a word was said in all prior decisions on the issue. The panel confronted it directly: “Chevron Corp and Chevron Canada have annual gross revenues in the billions of dollars. It is difficult to believe that either of these two corporations . . . require protection for cost awards that amount or could amount to a miniscule fraction of their annual revenues.”
  • This motion was never really about the costs – it was a strategic attempt to kill of the entire litigation. Again, blindingly obvious, yet no earlier court dared speak this truth. Focusing again on the “holistic” entirety, the panel did not shy away: “Chevron Corporation has and, it may be anticipated, will employ all available means to resist enforcement of the Ecuadorian judgment. This, of course, is within its rights. However, this reality makes it difficult to accept that the motion for security for costs was anything more than a measure intended to bring an end to the litigation.”
  • The Ecuadorian environmental judgment is at the center of this case. It is, after all, the judgment being enforced. Yet the motions judge never referenced the substance of the Ecuadorian judgment, instead relying repeatedly on the collateral attack judgment that Chevron obtained from its home country courts after it lost the Ecuadorian case. The judge’s reliance on a U.S. judgment, no matter how suspect (among other troubling features, the U.S. judgment relied on illegally paid-for “fact” testimony that has now been debunked), instead of even considering the Ecuadorian judgment at the heart of the proceeding points to the deeply-rooted issues of implicit bias that Canadian courts have long struggled with in dealing with aboriginal claims and developing country courts. The panel, by contrast, properly ignored the collateral attack judgment and instead noted that the Ecuadorian judgment’s findings have not,  in fact, been “undermined” at all in Canadian courts. “Accept[ing] the finding that underlie the Ecuadorian judgment,” the panel noted, it would be especially perverse to order the Ecuadorians to pay Chevron’s legal fees because the Ecuadorians are impoverished in part due to the very acts of Chevron/Texaco itself.

The panel charts a new course. Now, the Ontario Court of Appeal did just that three years ago, when it reversed the last round of erroneous decisions by a Canadian trial court judge unwilling to call Chevron to account for its countless abuses. It was affirmed by the Canadian Supreme Court — but then, it was back down to another hesitant trial judge, starting the whole process over again, losing years in the process. As noted, we are over five years into the enforcement case in Canada and we still haven’t finished dealing with preliminary challenges in what is supposed to be a “streamlined” enforcement/recognition process.

The Ecuadorians are still living through a miscarriage of justice in Canada. The Canadian courts re-emerged from the realm of pure fantasy with today’s reality-based decision, but a hard, very real mountain of challenges remains. Much more to be said when time allows…

The “Vengeance Phase” of Chevron’s RICO Strategy: Human Rights Supporters Must Speak Out

[ 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” hereherehereherehere…)

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.”

Continue reading

Will the Supreme Court to Strike Down Chevron’s Facially Corrupt RICO Case?

[ 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.