New Lawyers for Donziger Face Big Hurdles in Chevron Case
Embattled attorney Steven Donziger announced Tuesday that he's retained two formidable trial lawyers to defend him against allegations that he rigged a $19 billion environmental judgment against Chevron Corporation in Ecuador. They've got their work cut out for them.
First of all, the duo — Richard Friedman of Seattle-based Friedman Rubin and Zoe Littlepage of Houston-based Littlepage Booth — won't have much time to prepare. A bench trial kicks off on Oct. 15 in Chevron's fraud and racketeering case against Donziger, capping a long stretch of pretrial triumphs for the oil giant and its lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Here are just a few of the obstacles facing Friedman and Littlepage: A consulting firm hired by Donziger in the underlying Ecuadorian environmental case admitted in April that it ghostwrote a supposedly neutral expert's report. In January, a former Ecuadorian judge claimed that Donziger and his allies also schemed to ghostwrite the 2012 judgment itself. The U.S. district judge in Manhattan assigned to the RICO case, Lewis Kaplan, has already ruled previously that there's probable cause to believe that the megaverdict is tainted by fraud. Patton Boggs, which represents the Ecuadorian claimants, recently failed to boot Kaplan from the case (see our coverage here and here), and on Monday the judge refused to force Chevron to make its case in front of a jury.
For the last five months Donziger has been representing himself pro se, with occasional help from Aaron Page of the Washington D.C.–based human rights law firm Forum Nobis. Donziger's last attorney, John Keker of Keker & Van Nest, loudly bowed out of the case in May. As we reported here, Keker wrote in his lengthy withdrawal motion that Chevron's case against Donziger had "degenerated into a Dickensian farce" because of Chevron's "scorched earth" tactics and Kaplan's "implacable hostility."
Donziger both praised his new lawyers and highlighted their uphill battle in a statement on Tuesday. "I am gratified that two highly skilled lawyers have agreed to represent me in this critical case where I believe my due process rights have been violated by the court's rush to judgment in favor of Chevron," he said.
Friedman and Littlepage are both well-known members of the plaintiffs mass tort bar. In 2011 Friedman won a $104 million jury verdict against Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and Baxter International Inc. in a bellwether trial over their marketing of the sedative Propofol. Littlepage served as lead plaintiffs counsel in consolidated personal injury litigation over Pfizer Inc.'s hormone replacement drug Prempro.
Neither Friedman nor Littlepage returned calls seeking comment, and a spokesperson for Donziger declined to comment on how they'll be paid for their work. When Keker withdrew in May, he wrote that he was owed $1.4 million in legal fees that Donziger was unable to pay. Judge Kaplan called that claim disingenuous. He pointed out that several different law firms are trying to help the Ecuadorians enforce their $19 billion judgment in foreign jurisdictions like Canada and Argentina (Chevron has no assets in Ecuador, so the Ecuadorian plaintiffs want to seize Chevron's assets elsewhere). "There is no competent evidence that the nonpayment is a result of inability to pay as distinguished from a decision not to pay by whomever controls resources on the defendants' side," Kaplan wrote.
The judge hasn't yet officially granted Donziger's eleventh-hour motion to admit new counsel. In an odd twist, the motion includes as an exhibit an eight-year-old sanctions order and formal reprimand against Zoe Littlepage. The 2005 order, which was issued by Judge Kaplan himself in an unrelated case, directed Littlepage to annex the reprimand to all future pro hac vice applications in the Southern District of New York.
It also remains to be seen if Friedman and Littlepage will try to delay the trial in order to digest the massive history of the case — a move Chevron will surely oppose. Back in May, after Keker withdrew, Donziger tried to delay the trial by up to three months. Kaplan quickly denied the request.
Chevron counsel Randy Mastro of Gibson Dunn declined to comment.