Regardless of what you think of the business of litigation funding, it’s here to stay. There are now hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of capital invested in commercial litigation and arbitration in the United States, Britain and Australia, and some of the biggest litigation funding firms in the United States have begun to show a good enough return for their investors to justify the risk of taking sides in inherently lengthy and uncertain cases. Business groups that oppose investment in litigation tried mightily, but they simply haven’t managed to stem the industry’s steady spread, either through legislation or regulation.
On Monday, Chevron filed a new motion for summary judgment in its fraud and racketeering case against the lawyers and expert witnesses who helped 47 Ecuadoreans from the Lago Agrio region of the rainforest obtain an $18 billion judgment against the oil company from an Ecuadorean court in 2011. The motion discloses what seems to be incredibly powerful evidence that the Ecuadorean judgment was illegitimate: A onetime presiding judge on the Ecuadorean case, Alberto Guerra, submitted a declaration asserting that he acted as the middleman in setting up a $500,000 bribe from plaintiffs’ lawyers to the Ecuadorean judge who entered the judgment against Chevron. Guerra claimed that the plaintiffs actually drafted the 2011 judgment and that he, as a behind-the-scenes ghostwriter, worked with plaintiffs’ lawyers to make it seem more like a court ruling. According to his declaration, filed before U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of Manhattan, Guerra had previously received regular payments from the plaintiffs in the Chevron case to ghostwrite other rulings subsequently issued by the presiding judge. And, to boot, Guerra asserted that Chevron — unlike the plaintiffs — didn’t respond to his solicitation of bribes.
It’s been relatively easy for district courts to figure out how to apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Morrison v. National Australia Bank in securities cases – unless the defendant is a U.S.-listed company, shareholders are pretty much out of luck in U.S. courts. Post-Morrison racketeering litigation has no such conveniently bright lines. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act doesn’t explicitly mention that it applies to overseas conduct, so under Morrison judges must presume it does not. But they’ve struggled to define exactly what constitutes overseas racketeering as opposed to domestic racketeering with an international component.
It’s been all of three weeks since U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of Manhattan federal court lifted a stay on Chevron’s fraud and racketeering suit, which was filed in 2010 against the Ecuadoreans who accuse the oil company of contaminating the Lago Agrio region of the rainforest as well as the Ecuadoreans’ lawyers and advisers. But the two sides in this corollary to the endless litigation that produced an $18.2 billion judgment against Chevron in the Ecuadorean courts have picked up as though they never left off. This week Chevron filed a motion for partial summary judgment and renewed its motion for an attachment order that would effectively block the Ecuadoreans from enforcing their award. Lawyers for the RICO defendants, predictably, have responded with accusations of dirty tricks against Chevron and its counsel at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
In last week’s rejection of Chevron’s attempt to use U.S. courts to block enforcement of the Lago Agrio plaintiffs’ $18 billion Ecuadorean judgment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was clearly uneasy at the idea of American judges interfering with foreign jurisprudence. So far, the arbitration panel overseeing Chevron’s case against the Republic of Ecuador has had no such qualms. But with Chevron now relying heavily on the arbitration process to protect it from plaintiffs’ attempts to claim oil company assets, the panel’s power over foreign courts is going to become a key issue — and the Ecuadorean plaintiffs are now calling for the U.S. government to support Ecuador’s sovereignty. Chevron, meanwhile, argues that if anyone has caused harm to Ecuador’s constitution, it’s the Republic and the Lago Agrio plaintiffs, not Chevron and the arbitration panel.
If Chevron was still hoping for a ruling from New York’s federal courts that would make it impossible for Ecuadorean plaintiffs to collect their $18 billion judgment against the oil company, Thursday’s long-awaited opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit puts an end to that strategy. The appellate panel’s 30-page opinion — which explains the court’s Sept. 2011 order lifting the worldwide injunction barring enforcement of the Ecuadorean judgment — gives Chevron the chance to argue once again that the Ecuadoreans can’t collect in New York, under the state’s Uniform Foreign Country Money-Judgments Recognition Act. But in no uncertain terms, the Second Circuit advised that even if Chevron eventually persuades a New York judge that the Ecuadoreans procured their judgment through fraud, that judge cannot bar enforcement of the judgment outside of the United States.
On Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied Chevron’s bid to re-impose a worldwide injunction barring Ecuadorean plaintiffs from acting to enforce the $18 billion environmental contamination judgment that an Ecuadorean appellate panel upheld earlier this month. That’s Chevron’s second big rebuff in its U.S. campaign to knock out the Ecuadorean judgment, which the oil company contends was fraudulently obtained. Two weeks ago U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan — theretofore a reliable backstop for Chevron — refused the oil company’s motion for an attachment order in its racketeering suit against the Ecuadorean plaintiffs and some of their lawyers and experts.
There was a very interesting paragraph near the end of Burford Capital’s announcement Monday that it has acquired a British litigation insurance provider. Burford, you may recall, is the litigation-finance company that in November 2010 made a controversial $4 million investment in the Ecuadorean litigation accusing Chevron of despoiling the Lago Agrio region of the Amazonian rainforest. Burford put up the money to pay the plaintiffs’ new lawyers at Patton Boggs after Chevron’s counsel at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher succeeded in driving their longtime lawyer, Steven Donziger, out of the litigation.
We’re less than three months away from Manhattan federal judge Lewis Kaplan’s trial to determine whether an Ecuadorean court’s $18 billion judgment against Chevron for contaminating the Lago Agrio region of the rainforest is enforceable in the U.S. In the declaratory judgment proceeding, Chevron’s lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher will argue, as they have for the last 18 months, that the Ecuadorean judgment was the result of political and public relations chicanery, much of it committed by the plaintiffs lawyer who spearheaded the Ecuadoreans’ case, Steven Donziger. But according to Donziger’s lawyers at Keker & Van Nest, Judge Kaplan won’t give them or their client a chance to be heard as the declaratory judgment case races to trial.