Lawyer Ducks Chevron's Calls for Contempt

Barbara Leonard
Friday, January 14, 2011

MANHATTAN (CN) - A federal judge declined to file contempt charges against a lawyer who Chevron claims has stonewalled discovery orders the company is using to fight a $113 billion environmental lawsuit in Ecuador. Nevertheless, the judge ordered "additional measures" to ensure Steven Donziger fully complies with subpoenas.

Chevron has claimed that judicial misconduct taints the trial against it in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, over contamination caused by its subsidiary, Texaco, during 30 years of oil drilling in the country. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan permitted the oil giant to subpoena Donziger, an American lawyer who organized the Ecuadorians' lawsuit. The 2nd Circuit ruled in December that Donziger had to comply with the subpoena, but Chevron asked the court last week to address Donziger's allegedly incomplete production under the order. Chevron hopes that evidence of Donziger's questionable trial activities will help it dismiss the environmental lawsuit through international arbitration proceedings, and to dismiss criminal proceedings that two of its attorneys face in Lago Agrio over alleged misconduct defending Chevron.

An earlier order from Kaplan, dated Tuesday, states that Donziger requested more time to comply with the subpoena. Kaplan wrote in that filing that Donziger's strategy seems to delay proceedings in the U.S. and accelerate them in Ecuador. In Kaplan's order on Thursday, the judge ordered Donziger to consent to letting Yahoo disclose the contents of his e-mail account to Chevron and the two Chevron lawyers on trial in Ecuador. Donziger must also produce the required documents from his law firm account and ensure that he has turned over every electronic document in his possession that comes under the subpoena.

Kaplan said he would reserve decision on whether to hold Donziger in contempt or produce mirror images of his hard drive. He also granted an expanded scope of reference to the special master in the case. On the same day that Kaplan issued his latest ruling, the 2nd Circuit in Manhattan issued a ruling that also benefitted Chevron. The court's three-judge federal appeals panel ruled that documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger cannot use journalist's privilege to challenge a subpoena that Chevron filed to see outtakes from his film, "Crude." Berlinger's film chronicles how oil drilling devastated Ecuador's rainforest and also provides an intimate look at Donziger's role in the lawsuit against Chevron.


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