A New York appeals court has turned what could be the last page on a twisted tale of manipulation, bribery, back-room dealing and bombast that is sure to go down in legal history. Last week, the court suspended the law license of plaintiffs’ bar crusader Steven Donziger until further notice.
Steven Donziger has spent a quarter of a century attempting to extract billions of dollars from oil giant Chevron as compensation for drill-site contamination committed by Texaco (acquired by Chevron in 2001) over a 30-year span of activity. The group Donziger represents includes an estimated 30,000 inhabitants of the Ecuadorian rainforest impacted by the contamination.
Since his initial filings in the early ‘90s, Donziger has consistently and nonsensically claimed that Chevron owes compensation to that group. Texaco signed a comprehensive settlement with the government of Ecuador in 1995, releasing it from any future environmental liability long before Chevron acquired the company. Furthermore, the contaminated areas in question had been managed for years by Ecuadorian firm PetroEcuador at the time of the filings.
But the dubious merits of his suit are not what got Donziger’s license suspended. That development is rooted in more recent events. In 2011, an Ecuadorian judge ruled in favor of Donziger’s class, ordering Chevron to pay $8.6 billion in compensatory damages, to be increased by an additional $10 billion in punitive damages if Chevron refused to apologize and accept the initial order. Chevron rightfully refused.
The following year, Chevron filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) suit against Donziger in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging that the staggering judgement in Ecuador had been reached through fraudulent means. In 2014, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled in Chevron’s favor, having found “clear and convincing evidence” that Donziger’s legal team had used bribery, fraud, and extortion to obtain the judgement—including a $500,000 bribe paid directly to the Ecuadorian judge handling the case.
This brings us to last week, when the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court’s First Judicial Department found that the “uncontroverted evidence of serious professional misconduct” uncovered by Judge Kaplan in 2014 was enough to warrant suspension of Donziger’s law license.
This decision is an undeniable blow to Donziger’s reputation, which is already suffering from his repeated failures (Canada, Argentina, Brazil) to peddle the Chevron litigation from one international court to another, looking for a judge willing to enforce the 2011 ruling. It shouldn’t be long now before this egregious example of lawsuit abuse reaches its long-overdue termination.