New SEC enforcement chief abruptly resigns after judge questions 'unhinged' claim in BigLaw case
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The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s new enforcement chief, Alex Oh, abruptly resigned Wednesday after a federal judge said he was considering sanctions for a claim that she made about her opposing counsel's demeanor before she left her BigLaw firm.
Oh’s resignation letter said a “development” in one of the cases that she worked on in private practice couldn’t be addressed without creating “an unwelcome distraction” in her new role.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth of the District of Columbia said in an April 26 order Oh’s legal team claimed that opposing counsel had been “agitated, disrespectful and unhinged” during a deposition without providing any evidence to support those claims. He ordered Oh and the legal team to show cause why he shouldn’t order sanctions.
Lamberth said his order should be served on Oh, who was a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison during the litigation. Paul Weiss was representing the Exxon Mobil Corp. and ExxonMobil Indonesia in the lawsuit, which alleged military personnel providing security for Exxon facilities in Indonesia sexually assaulted, kidnapped and tortured nearby residents.
Lamberth also awarded attorney fees and other expenses to the plaintiffs for their motion to compel discovery and award sanctions and for taking new deposition testimony.
The plaintiffs filed their motion to compel discovery and impose sanctions Feb. 23. The motion said, rather than answering questions during a deposition, a witness for ExxonMobil Indonesia “would apparently read verbatim from a lengthy and nonresponsive script that was not visible from the video camera angle.”
When the plaintiffs’ counsel asked the witness whether his testimony had been written by lawyers, he repeatedly said the script was a “distillation” of his discussions with lawyers. At other times, he avoided a straight answer by saying he didn’t know who the typist was, the motion said.
The witness was the regional general counsel of the Asia Pacific region for Exxon and its affiliates.
Exxon Mobile Corp. and ExxonMobil Indonesia opposed the request for sanctions and also included a cross-motion for sanctions in a March 9 memorandum. The document was signed and submitted by Oh, although other Paul Weiss lawyers were also listed on the document.
The memorandum argued that the plaintiffs’ counsel used much of the deposition time “badgering the witness about the origins of notes on which he relied.” Much of the seven-hour deposition was spent by the plaintiffs’ counsel “attempting to elicit misleading ‘gotcha’ moments or sound bites,” the Paul Weiss memorandum said.
The Paul Weiss memorandum said the opposing counsel became “indignant and adversarial” during the deposition.
The “unhinged” allegation was in this footnote: “While plaintiffs’ counsel contends that defense counsel’s comments to him to calm down distorted the record because he was ‘calm and entirely professional’ throughout the deposition, … the record demonstrates the opposite: The deposition became contentious from the beginning because the questioning attorney became unhinged upon discovering that the witness had notes and repeatedly attacked and baselessly threatened to seek sanctions against the witness and counsel for using notes and asking clarifying questions. … Defense counsel had no choice but to speak up repeatedly to defend her client and herself against the questioning attorneys’ browbeating and disrespectful behavior.”
The Paul Weiss cross-motion also says: “Until this motion, defense counsel had never been accused of engaging in sanctionable conduct during the entirety of her career.”
Paul Weiss chairman Brad Karp told several publications covering the resignation that the firm couldn’t comment on the matter because it involves ongoing litigation.
“Alex is a person of the utmost integrity and a consummate professional, with a strong ethical code,” Karp said.