Ethics

Lawyer accused of obtaining fraudulent environmental verdict against Chevron is disbarred

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Chevron

Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California. Photo by Todd A. Merport/Shutterstock.com.

Rejecting a referee’s recommendation, a New York appeals court has disbarred an environmental lawyer for obtaining a fraudulent $8.6 billion judgment against Chevron in Ecuador.

In an Aug. 13 decision, the Appellate Division’s First Judicial Department of the New York Supreme Court disbarred lawyer Steven Donziger retroactive to July 2018, when an interim suspension began.

A referee had recommended that Donziger regain his law license, despite a federal judge’s finding that Donziger engaged in bribery, judicial coercion, witness tampering, obstruction of justice and corruption of a court expert in the Ecuador case. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan had made the findings in a racketeering suit filed against Donziger by Chevron.

Donziger had obtained the judgment in a suit contending that Chevron predecessor company Texaco had caused environmental damages in Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region through oil exploration work.

Kaplan blocked enforcement of the Ecuadorian judgment and awarded Chevron $800,000 on the RICO claim. He also ordered Donziger to pay $3.4 million in attorney fees to Chevron after finding him in contempt for stonewalling Chevron’s efforts to collect the judgment.

The referee in the ethics case, John Horan, had concluded that Kaplan’s decision “is entitled to considerable weight but not necessarily, in these unique circumstances, decisive weight.” Horan said no court in Ecuador had found that the judgment was corrupt, and Donziger’s testimony in the ethics case “showed no sign of dissembling or evasiveness.”

Donziger testified that he hired local counsel in Ecuador, and he wasn’t very involved in the suit on a day-to-day basis. Horan said Donziger was pursued relentlessly by Chevron, putting him in a difficult financial position.

But the New York appeals court rejected the referee’s recommendation. Donziger “has been found guilty of egregious professional misconduct,” which “he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge and shows no remorse for,” the appeals court said.

“Not only did the referee understate the magnitude of respondent’s egregious misdeeds, he also failed to recognize (nor even discuss) the relevant precedent in which the sanction of disbarment has been imposed for comparable misconduct,” the appeals court said.

Previous coverage had said the Ecuador judgment was about $9.5 billion, but articles on the disbarment by Law.com and Forbes say the judgment amounted to $8.6 billion. The $8.6 billion figure also appears in an opinion by Kaplan that says that was the judgment after a reduction of a larger award on appeal.

Donziger told the ABA Journal in an email that he will ask the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to review the disbarment decision. He also noted that he has not been disbarred in Washington, D.C.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Donziger said the disbarment order “is a horrendous miscarriage of justice” and “a shocking assault on public interest lawyering generally.”

“No doubt, the serial polluters at Chevron who have spent billions to try to demonize me are dancing in their corporate suites,” the statement said. “But the battle is far from over. The company still faces enormous risk from its toxic legacy in Ecuador and other countries, which will haunt its business operations for decades to come. The Ecuador judgment will continue to be enforced around the world where Chevron has assets.”

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Racketeering case filed by Chevron against lawyer who won $18B enviro award goes to trial”

ABAJournal.com: “Author tells tangled tale of the $19B verdict against Chevron in ‘Law of the Jungle’ (podcast)”

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