Steven R. Donziger
Steven R. Donziger (born in 1961) is an American lawyer, a former public defender who came to prominence for representing the plaintiffs (thousands of Amazon villagers) in the Lago Agrio oil field case against the former well operator Texaco, now part of Chevron Corporation. On February 14, 2011, a local court in Ecuador ordered Chevron Corporation to pay $18.1 billion but was later reduced to $9.5 billion by the Ecuador Supreme Court.
Following the judgment, Chevron claimed that it had been procured by fraud and brought a claim against Donziger in a US District Court. The court issued an opinion on 4 March 2014, concluding that Donziger corrupted the Ecuadorian case by submitting fraudulent evidence, coercing the judge, paying off a supposedly impartial expert, paying a Colorado consulting firm to write the expert's report, falsely presenting the report as the expert's own work, bribing the judge to give a ruling against Chevron and then misleading the US courts in an attempt to prevent exposure of his wrongdoing. The US District Court has therefore refused to enforce the judgment against Chevron.
Education & Career
Donziger graduated from American University and has a law degree from Harvard University. Before law school, he had worked in Central America as a journalist. At Harvard Law School friends referred to him as “Big Steve” because of his large physical stature, and he played basketball with Barack Obama, another member of the Class of 1991. Since then, he worked for 2 years as a public defender in Washington, D.C. and in private practice. He has worked on hundreds of cases but is most well known for the pursuit of the case on behalf of the plaintiffs of Lago Agrio, seeking damages for environmental harm allegedly caused by waste from dumping by Texaco.
The Lago Agrio case
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The Lago Agrio is a large oil field in Ecuador which was formerly operated by Texaco. Texaco was later absorbed by Chevron. In 1993, some 30,000 residents of the area sued Chevron, alleging that Texaco had left behind massive damages to the environment and to human health. Donziger entered the case in 1993, initially as part of the plaintiffs' legal team. By 2003 he had emerged as the plaintiffs' principal spokesman, leading US legal counsel, and head strategist for the Ecuadoran legal team.
According to environmental activists such as chevrontoxico.com, the environmental damage in this case is so vast that it has been called the Amazonian Chernobyl. The plaintiffs say that they have suffered damages including pools of toxic sludge, poisoned drinking water, uninhabitable or unusable property, and community-wide increases in birth defects and chronic illnesses such as cancers and skin lesions.
Lawsuits in the United States and Ecuador
The suit against Chevron was originally filed in US courts. Chevron-Texaco argued the case should be heard in Ecuador and agreed to abide by whatever judgment emerged from that country. Chevron acquired Texaco with full knowledge of the litigation, but did not report the potential liability to its shareholders. In 2001, the US court ruled in favor of Chevron that Ecuador was the proper venue.
The Ecuadorian lawyers refiled the case in Ecuador, and on February 14, 2011, a local court in Ecuador ordered Chevron Corporation to pay $18.1 billion. The award was later reduced to $9.5 billion by the Ecuador Supreme Court.
Attempts to collect from Chevron
Chevron then alleged that the Ecuadorian case was fraudulent, on the basis of 600 hours of out-takes from the film "Crude" (out-takes which Chevron says prove Donziger was "planning to falsify evidence & commit corruption", according to a Tweet on 3/19/14) and allegations of evidence-tempering by the court. However this allegedly fraudulent evidence was dismissed on the basis of Chevron's same allegations before the Ecuadorian court, which threw out the evidence and thus did not include it in the final judgment. The Ecuadorian plaintiffs continue to pursue recognition and enforcement of the judgment from the Ecuadorian courts.
On the basis that Donziger and others of the plaintiffs' team had engaged in misconduct, Chevron obtained an injunction from U.S. District Court against collection anywhere in the world of the Ecuadorian damage award.[unreliable source?] Donziger successfully appealed the injunction to the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which vacated the injunction insofar as it applies outside the US.
The Ecuadorian plaintiffs whom Donziger represents attempted to enforce the judgment in Ontario, Canada, but the action was dismissed in May 2013.Chevron had assets frozen in Argentina, until the Argentina's Supreme Court freed the assets in June 2013.
Actions to collect on the Ecuadorian verdict are being pursued in Colombia.
One Chevron spokesperson said “We’re going to fight this until Hell freezes over—and then we’ll fight it out on the ice.” Court records indicate Chevron, the successor in interest to Texaco, has retained more than 400 lawyers from numerous corporate law firms around the world to defend the case.
From the start, Donziger organized a media and public relations campaign to put additional pressure on Chevron to settle. His efforts included bringing plaintiffs to Manhattan to appear in native dress outside the courtroom, arranging for a plaintiff to crash a Chevron annual shareholders meeting in Houston, and arranging “toxic tours” of the Lago Agrio oil field for reporters.
Donziger interested the television news show 60 Minutes into doing the feature segment "Amazon crude" on the Lago Agrio case. The May 2009 broadcast was highly critical of Chevron.
Suit against Donziger by Chevron
Donziger's cooperation with the filming of the documentary Crude turned on him when Chevron sought to have access to 600 hours of scenes that were not included in the final film. Chevron acquired an out-take of a clip from the film of Donziger making a remark expressing skepticism about the past reliability of the Ecuadorian court system, and has since successfully sued the filmmaker for access to additional cut materials. Robert Redford has called the potential negative ramifications for this decision "both shocking and profound" in its effect on the journalist community, the film world and society in general.
Chevron sued Donziger for extortion and criminal conspiracy under the RICO statute, using as evidence scenes of Doninger from 600 hours of outtakes from the film Crude.[unreliable source?] Chevron was able to obtain numerous files that would otherwise have been subject to privilege and protected from disclosure.[unreliable source?][not in citation given] Donziger's counterclaims have been dismissed.
In March 2014, a United States district court judge ruled that Donziger had used “corrupt means,” including "coercion, bribery, money laundering and other misconduct," to obtain the 2011 court verdict in Ecuador. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiff’s legal team, led by Donziger, had bribed Judge Zambrano to allow the plaintiffs to write the 188-page Ecuadorian court decision against Chevron, which Zambrano issued under his own name in 2011. The US court did not rule on the underlying issue of environmental damages. While the US ruling does not affect the decision of the court in Ecuador, it has blocked efforts to collect damages from Chevron in US courts.
Lawyers for Donziger and his two Ecuadorean co-defendants, Hugo Camacho and Javier Piaguaje, appealed Judge Kaplan’s verdict in July 2014. In their brief to the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, they argued that Judge Kaplan lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. They further wrote that allegations of attorney misconduct should not affect Chevron’s liability for damages, as determined by the Ecuadorean judicial system, a process which included the initial verdict, review by an Ecuadorean court of appeals, and confirmation by the Ecuadorean Supreme Court.
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- "Overexposed – The American Lawyer". Law.com. April 25, 2011. Retrieved July 22, 2011.
- "Amazon Crusader. Chevron Pest. Fraud?". Business Week. March 9, 2011. Retrieved July 22, 2011.
- Republic of Ecuador v. ChevronTexaco Corp., 376 F. Supp. 2d 334; 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12562
- Chevron Corporation v. The Republic of Ecuador, PCA Case No. 14 2009-23 (Feb. 9, 2011)
- Maria Aguinda et al., v Chevron (14 February 2011), Sole Chamber of the Sucumbíos Provincial Court, oral proceeding No. 002-2003 at 184-185
- Jota v. Texaco, 157 F.3d 153; 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 24615; 41 Fed. R. Serv. 3d (Callaghan) 1282; Aguinda v. Texaco, Inc., 142 F. Supp 2d 534 (S.D.N.Y. 2001)
- "Ecuador judgment against Chevron tainted by corruption, U.S. judge says". Oil Patch Asia. Retrieved 5 March 2014.
- CBC News http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/05/31/ecuador-chveron-canada.html
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- CTV "Judge dismisses $19B Ecuador judgment against Chevron's Canadian subsidiary"
- Wall Street Journal "Argentina's Top Court Unfreezes Chevron Assets"
- Patrick Radden Keefe, “Reversal of fortune”, New Yorker, 9 Jan. 2012.
- Redford, Robert (June 4, 2010). "Joe Berlinger vs. Chevron: Why We Must All Defend Independent Filmmaking". Huffington Post.
- Clifford Krauss (July 30, 2013). "Lawyer Who Beat Chevron in Ecuador Faces Trial of His Own". The New York Times. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
- Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, Opinion: Chevron Corporation v. Steven Donziger et al, US District Court, Southern District of New York, 14 March 2014.
- BBC, US judge annuls Ecuador oil ruling against Chevron, 4 Mar. 2014.
- "U.S. Judge Hands Win to Chevron, Slams Lawyer". The Wall Street Journal. March 4, 2014.
- Jennifer Smith, “Lawyers battling Chevron appeal racketeering verdict to Second Circuit”, Wall Street Journal, 3 July 2014.