A Manhattan appeals court has dealt a substantial blow to Steven Donziger’s long-running fight against Chevron Corp, suspending him from practice based on a judge’s finding that he used “fraud” and “coercion” to push an Ecuadorian court to hit the oil giant with an $8.6 billion judgment for pollution in the Amazon rain forest.
But Donziger said Chevron is behind the effort to take him out of practice and the 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of the Southern District of New York, in which Kaplan admonished Donziger and the plaintiffs’ legal team for alleged “corrupt” conduct that included paying a $500,000 bribe to a judge and ghostwriting an expert witness report, was based on false testimony bankrolled by Chevron.
The suspension also comes as Donziger continues to fight Chevron’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations suit against him before Kaplan, who in March issued a $813,000 judgment against Donziger for costs related to the case.
In a ruling issued on Tuesday, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division, First Department, accepted a motion by the grievance committee for the First Department to accept Kaplan’s findings based on collateral estoppel—thus it did not hold a hearing to litigate the facts of the case—and directed a special referee to hold a hearing for further sanctions on Donziger.
The panel, composed of Justices John Sweeny Jr., Dianne Renwick, Rosalyn Richter, Sallie Manzanet-Daniels and Marcy Kahn, said Kaplan’s assessment of Donziger’s conduct in the case “constitute uncontroverted evidence of serious professional misconduct which immediately threatens the public interest.”
Naomi Goldstein appeared for the Grievance Committee; and George A. Davidson of Hughes Hubbard & Reed appeared in the case as pro bono special counsel for the committee. A spokeswoman for the grievance committee declined to comment and Davidson did not respond to a request for comment.
In a written statement, Donziger said he will file for leave to appeal the ruling to the Court of Appeals and that Kaplan based his findings on a witness that Chevron paid off.
“The case on which the First Department rests its decision was based largely on false witness testimony paid for by Chevron, which was designed to retaliate against me for my role in holding the company accountable for the deliberate dumping of billions of gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador—dumping which decimated Indigenous peoples and created an environmental catastrophe that continues to cause grave harm to vulnerable communities in the Amazon rain forest,” Donziger said.
Kaplan’s chambers declined to comment on Donziger’s allegations, citing a policy against answering media inquiries. Chevron’s media relations office did not immediately respond for comment emailed through its website.
The First Department’ disciplinary ruling is the latest development in an epic legal journey that began in 1993, when residents of Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region filed a class action suit against New York-based Texaco, alleging that its oil operations there from 1964 to 1992 contaminated rain forests and waterways and put residents’ health in jeopardy.
From there, Chevron eventually acquired Texaco, and legal battles over pollution in Ecuador and Peru have raged in courts throughout the Western Hemisphere, including in Argentina, Brazil and Canada.
In 2009, the legal fight for the people living in affected areas were spotlighted in the documentary film “Crude,” in which Chevron alleged Donziger is seen engaging in unethical behavior in the run-up to the Ecuadorian court’s judgment against Chevron.
Kaplan issued a subpoena for seizure of hundreds of hours of footage from the documentarian, in which Donziger can be seen lamenting the Ecuadorian judiciary as “weak and corrupt,” Kaplan said in his 2014 ruling.
“We have concluded that we need to do more, politically, to control the court, to pressure the court,” Donziger is portrayed saying in a clip from the footage. “We believe they make decisions based on who they fear the most, not based on what the laws should dictate.”
Chevron then brought its RICO suit against Donziger in 2011. In his 2014 ruling, Kaplan barred Donziger from seeking enforcement of the Ecuadorian judgment.
In the fallout from Kaplan’s ruling, law firm Patton Boggs—now Squire Patton Boggs—which had stood alongside Donziger in representing the plaintiffs in the case, apologized for its role and agreed to pay $15 million to Chevron.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed Kaplan’s ruling and denied Donziger’s bid to rehear the case en banc; the U.S. Supreme Court also denied cert to hear the case.
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Randy Mastro, the lead counsel for Chevron in the RICO case, did not respond to a request for comment.
Additionally, a group of indigenous Ecuadorians brought suit against Donziger in New York claiming that he was trying to keep the judgment money for himself, but the Second Circuit said Ecuador was the proper venue for the claim.
But for their part, Donziger and the plaintiffs have continued their fight on the merits of their case in Ecuadorian court and have looked to the Canadian courts to enforce the judgment, which they say has grown to $12 billion with interest.
They have been dealt losses in Canada: Two courts there have found that Chevron’s Canadian subsidiary cannot be held liable for the pollution in South America, and the plaintiffs are appealing to Canada’s high court.
But Ecuadorian courts have continued to side with the plaintiffs.
“Judge Kaplan is alone in the world for finding how he did,” Donziger said in an interview.