Steven Donziger: The Confinement of a Human Rights Lawyer

Steven Donziger is a human rights lawyer who has battled Chevron for as long as I have been alive.  He has been on house arrest for over 800 days and, on Friday, October 1, 2021, Mr. Donziger was sentenced to “six months imprisonment … for criminal contempt charges arising from a lawsuit brought by the oil giant.”[1]  He reported to federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut on Wednesday, October 27, 2021.[2] 

On behalf of a large class of mostly indigenous Ecuadorians called the Lago Argio Plaintiffs (LAP), Mr. Donziger won a judgment of 9.5 billion dollars against Chevron for the contamination and environmental degradation of the Lago Argio region of Ecuador.[3][4]  Lago Argio is an oil-rich region near the city of Neava Loja, Ecuador, and beginning in the 1960s, Texaco Petroleum Company (Texaco) began searching for oil in the region.[5] Thereafter, thousands of people began developing cancer and other diseases that were previously not seen in the region.[6]  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of abandoned oil drilling sites that have caused oil to seep into the groundwater and the local river, making life difficult for the people of the Lago Argio region.[7]  Roughly 300,000 Ecuadoreans filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. court against Texaco in 1993.[8]  Chevron inherited the lawsuit when it merged with Texaco in 2001.[9]  Chevron-Texaco fought for nine years to move the case out of the U.S. and into Ecuadorian courts, where they believed they would receive a more favorable outcome.[10] Chevron has argued that the ruling was “the product of fraud (and) contrary to the legitimate scientific evidence.”[11]

Mr. Donziger is a self-described “corporate political prisoner,”[12] and refuses to give in.  After Mr. Donziger did the unthinkable and won a 9.5-billion-dollar judgment in Ecuador against Chevron, the corporation set out to destroy and “demonize Donziger.”[13] In doing so, they created a publication to attack the judgment,[14] hired private investigators to track him,[15] and compiled a substantial legal team of hundreds of lawyers from 60 law firms.[16]

After refusing to pay the judgment, Chevron filed a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit against Mr. Donziger in United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.[17] United States District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered Mr. Donziger to turn over his computer and client communications to Chevron and Mr. Donziger refused.[18] Remarkably, the United States’ Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Mr. Donziger. Thus, Judge Kaplan, presiding in the civil action, appointed a private law firm to prosecute Mr. Donziger’s Criminal contempt charge.[19] While the case is officially titled United States of America v. Steven Donziger, the lead counsel for the “government” were lawyers employed by the white-shoe law firm Seward & Kissel.[20] Not only is this maneuver virtually unprecedented,[21] both Judge Kaplan and Seward & Kissel have direct ties to Chevron.  Judge Kaplan’s ties stem from his investments in three J.P. Morgan funds that have holdings in Chevron.[22] Seward & Kissel represented Chevron on at least two occasions and represented Chevron as recently as 2018.[23]

While Chevron continues to fight against Mr. Donziger, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WAGA) has called for Mr. Donziger to be released, stating his confinement was illegal.[24]  The maximum sentence for the crime of Criminal Contempt is six months,[25] and Mr. Donziger has already been on house arrest four times that. The actions of Chevron are depriving both Mr. Donziger and the LAP plaintiffs from their right to compensation. This case sets a dangerous precedent for lawyers who dare to take on large, powerful corporations. 

[1] Edward Helmore, Lawyer Steven Donziger gets six-month sentence for contempt in Chevron battle, GUARDIAN (Oct. 1, 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/01/steven-donziger-lawyer-sentenced-contempt-chevron.

[2] Isabella Grullon Paz, Lawyer Who Won $9.5 Billion Judgment Against Chevron Reports to Prison, NEW YORK TIMES (Oct. 27, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/27/business/energy-environment/steven-donziger-chevron.html.

[3] Sharon Lerner, How the environmental lawyer who won a massive judgment against Chevron lost everything, INTERCEPT (Jan. 29, 2020), https://theintercept.com/2020/01/29/chevron-ecuador-lawsuit-steven-donziger/.

[4] Chevron fined for Amazon pollution by Ecuador court, BBC (Feb. 15, 2011), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-12460333.

[5] CRUDE (Joe Berlinger 2009).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Chevron fined for Amazon pollution by Ecuador court, BBC (Feb. 15, 2011), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-12460333.

[11] Id.

[12] Edward Helmore, Lawyer Steven Donziger gets six-month sentence for contempt in Chevron battle, GUARDIAN (Oct. 1, 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/01/steven-donziger-lawyer-sentenced-contempt-chevron.

[13] Email from Chris Gidez, Public Relations manager for Chevron to William T. Irwin and Kent S. Robertson. (March 26, 2009, 11:23 EST) https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6661647-Demonize-Donziger.html.

[14] AMAZON POST, https://theamazonpost.com (last visited Oct. 20, 2021).

[15] Edward Helmore, Lawyer Steven Donziger gets six-month sentence for contempt in Chevron battle, GUARDIAN (Oct. 1, 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/01/steven-donziger-lawyer-sentenced-contempt-chevron.

[16] Amazon Defense Coalition, Chevron using 60 law firms and 2,000 legal personnel to evade Ecuador environmental liability, company reports, CSR WIRE (Mar. 4, 2013),  https://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/35294-chevron-using-60-law-firms-and-2-000-legal-personnel-to-evade-ecuador-environmental-liability-company-reports.

[17] Adam Klasfeld, When feds Demur, Judge Charges Ecuador Crusader Himself, COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE (August 13, 2019), https://www.courthousenews.com/when-feds-demur-judge-charges-ecuador-crusader-himself/.

[18] Id.

[19] Order of Appointment (July 30, 2019)  https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Donziger-appointment.pdf.

[20] Adam Klasfeld, When feds Demur, Judge Charges Ecuador Crusader Himself, COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE (August 13, 2019), https://www.courthousenews.com/when-feds-demur-judge-charges-ecuador-crusader-himself/.

[21] Id.

[22] Press Release, Amazon Watch, U.S. Judge Kaplan Held Investments in Chevron When He Ruled for Company in Ecuador Pollution Dispute (Oct. 29, 2014), https://amazonwatch.org/news/2014/1029-judge-kaplan-held-investments-in-chevron-when-he-ruled-for-company.

[23] Walker Bragman & David Sirota, The Government Gave Big Oil the Power to Proseucute Its Biggest Critic, The American Prospect (Jul. 14, 2020), https://prospect.org/power/chevron-big-oil-power-prosecute-its-biggest-critic/.

[24] Zack Budryk, UN rules that Steven Donziger house arrest violates international law, The Hill (Sep. 30, 2021), https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/574786-un-rules-that-steven-donziger-house-arrest-violates-international.

[25] Id.