Steve Donziger, Ecuadoran Villagers’ Lawyer, Loses License
By: Peter Hayes
An attorney who won an $8.6 billion award in an Ecuadoran court against Chevron Corp. over pollution of the Amazon rain forest later found to be obtained by coercion, fraud and bribery has lost his law license.
Steven Donziger is suspended from practicing law in New York state until further notice based on findings made in March 2014 by a federal trial court, a New York appeals court said July 10.
The 2014 findings of U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan are “uncontroverted evidence of serious professional misconduct which immediately threatens the public interest,” the appeals court said.
This is perhaps one of the final chapters in what Judge Kaplan referred to as an “extraordinary” case right “out of Hollywood,” Jeremy D. Frey, a partner at Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia specializing in complex civil litigation, told Bloomberg Law.
Given Kaplan’s finding, Frey said, today’s disciplinary ruling is likely not unexpected.
“Lawyer disciplinary proceedings—and challenges to them– are rarely if ever the main event, but follow along after the crash and complete the wreckage.” Frey said.
“If Judge Kaplan is right, this result is well –deserved. Regardless, the other shoe falling can’t be a good or happy event for anyone,” he said.
Michael Krauss, who teaches teaches torts, legal ethics, products liability, and jurisprudence at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Va., said he is surprised that it took this long for the state to suspend Donziger’s license.
“Donziger’s name will hopefully be enshrined in legal ethics courses for generations to come,” Krauss told Bloomberg Law.
In the 2014 ruling, Kaplan found that Ecuadoran Judge Alberto Guerra and a colleague who issued the judgment against Chevron—Judge Nicolas Zambrano—had been bribed.
The court found that the plaintiffs’ attorneys committed fraud by bribing Zambrano, ghostwriting a judgment that he adopted, and other acts of corruption and coercion.
The attorneys also engaged in a civil violation of Section 1962(c) of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, the court found, which requires conduct of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity, Kaplan said.
In August 2016, Chevron won another victory as the Second Circuit barred Donziger from enforcing the award in the U.S. because it was won through deceit.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined in June 2017 to consider whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had the authority to bar the recovery of an award issued by a foreign court.
Attorney Deepak Gupta with Gupta Wessler PLLC in Washington, who represented Donziger in the RICO case and as appellate counsel, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
The case is In the Matter of Steven R. Donziger, 2018 BL 243338, N.Y. App. Div., No. M-5635, 7/10/18.