Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Part of Canadian Judge's Decision a Slap in the Face To Human Rights Victims Worldwide

After being forced by Chevron to litigate for an astonishing 24 years, Ecuadorian indigenous villagers fighting for their own survival are now set to seize the company's assets in Canada to pay for a court-mandated clean-up of what is probably the world's worst oil-related environmental disaster.

But Canadian trial judge Glenn Hainey, either through ignorance or by making an old-fashioned mistake of corporate law, has just put up a potential roadblock in this historic campaign. In so doing, he inadvertently has damaged the cause of human rights and helped smooth the way for corporate polluters like Chevron to obtain impunity for their environmental crimes.

In a decision last week, Hainey allowed the Ecuadorian villagers to try to seize Chevron's assets in Canada to force the company to pay for its $12 billion environmental judgment in Ecuador. That's a huge victory for human rights. But oddly, Hainey also ruled that the assets in the oil giant's wholly-owned subsidiary in Canada were off-limits to collection.

Given that most of Chevron's estimated $25 billion worth of assets in Canada are held in the company's subsidiary (called Chevron Canada), that could be a big problem for collection if allowed to stand. We believe this part of Hainey's decision will be swiftly reversed, as was a previous trial judge's decision in favor of Chevron on similar grounds.

As background, Chevron has admitted to abandoning 1,000 toxic waste pits on indigenous ancestral lands in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Five indigenous groups have been decimated and are fighting for survival. The company also confessed that it deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic oil waste (known as "production waters") into streams and rivers of Ecuador, causing an outbreak of cancer in the affected area as confirmed by several independent health evaluations.

Hainey's decision has dramatic and even terrifying implications for the Ecuadorian villagers and all human rights victims. The thinking behind it explains why all too often the fossil fuel industry feels it can run roughshod over the planet while externalizing the costs of pollution to taxpayers without ever being held accountable in a court of law.

For context, Chevron has 1,500 wholly-owned subsidiaries around the world. Most of these subsidiaries, like many of those the company has set up in Canada, have no operations but are used for tax avoidance purposes and to avoid liability. Hainey ruled that all Chevron and other corporate polluters have to to do to avoid liability is to stuff their high-value assets (like oil fields, refineries, and pipelines) into a paper subsidiary and leave it at that.

Under Hainey's stunning theory, communities like those in Ecuador that win court judgments over environmental pollution are left out in the cold even though they adhere to the rule of law and fight for decades to win court judgments that get upheld on appeal.

What's really crazy about the logic behind the ruling -- and extremely unfair -- is that Chevron gets to keep all the profits from its subsidiaries, but the subs themselves are not allowed to be used to pay the company's debts. Chevron Canada pays about $3 billion annually in dividends to its sole shareholder Chevron yet is immune from any effort to collect a debt against its patron.

American law professor Aaron Marr Page recently published a brilliant deconstruction of the Hainey decision in the Huffington Post that should be a must-read for those who want to understand how such an unjust result can emerge from an apparently well-meaning judge.

After pointing out that Chevron has engaged in many years of forum shopping, judicial sabotage, and falsification of evidence to evade paying for its pollution in Ecuador, Professor Page writes:
Judge Hainey essentially ruled that a multinational fleeing a valid court judgment that hides its assets in a maze of paper subsidiaries can completely insulate itself from paying its obligations, while losing nothing in terms of profit or control... The decision stands as a dangerous precedent for the many other corporate accountability claims that are currently underway in Canadian and other courts.
Professor Page continues:
[Hainey] says to those claims that even if you prevail at the jurisdiction and the merits/liability stages, even if you sustain your victory on appeal, here is yet another barrier that could prevent you from merely collecting on a successful judgment. The chill this could cast more broadly on efforts to enforce human rights norms is obvious.
Professor Page also underscored that Hainey's fundamental error was that he used the wrong legal analysis of the corporate separateness defense raised by Chevron.

The real issue that Hainey missed is that there is a $12 billion judgment against Chevron based on voluminous record evidence documenting in great detail the company's pollution in Ecuador. The decision was affirmed unanimously by Ecuador's Supreme Court in the country where Chevron accepted jurisdiction. Chevron is a scofflaw debtor and no different than a parent who owes child support and flees to another state to evade paying.

The issue before Hainey was simple: Chevron Canada is a Chevron asset that obviously can be used to seize a debt owed by Chevron under basic legal principles adhered to by all civilized nations and codified in Canada's Execution Act. It's no different than a court ordering the seizure of the car or bank account of a parent to force payment of court-ordered child support.

Instead of adhering to this bedrock principle of law -- creditors have the right to seize a debtor's assets to satisfy a debt --  Hainey took Chevron's bait and went on a radical tangent by engaging in a "pierce the corporate veil" analysis which has no applicability to this enforcement action. He then bailed out Chevron by claiming Chevron Canada is a "separate" company even though it is totally owned and controlled by Chevron and 100% of its revenues flow up to Chevron as dividends.

But even under the incorrect "pierce the corporate veil" analysis, Hainey still got it wrong. In the modern globalized world, it is preposterous to think a company can avoid liability in one country by moving its assets to a paper subsidiary in another that it totally controls and then claim it is a "separate" company.

Hainey never should have succumbed to Chevron's pressure and used the "pierce the corporate veil" analysis. That analysis should apply only when there is a judgment against a subsidiary that has insufficient assets, forcing the creditor to go after the parent. In the Ecuador case, we have the opposite situation. There is a judgment by the villagers against a parent (Chevron) that refuses to pay and is a scofflaw. The subsidiary is simply one asset of the parent that could be seized to satisfy the judgment and force the parent to respect the rule of law.

When one understands Chevron's quarter-century of abuse of the civil justice systems in Ecuador and the United States, Hainey's decision becomes even more bewildering.

One wonders if he was cowed by the 30 or so Chevron lawyers from powerful law firms who showed up in his court during a four-day motions hearing last September. Most of them stared him down while only four or so of the lawyers actually did the argument.

The tab in legal fees to Chevron for what appeared to be a four-day exercise in judicial intimidation was an estimated $500,000. But that's nothing compared to the $2 billion Chevron has paid to hire 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers to fight the villagers since the inception of the case in 1993.

While the affected villagers make around $500 per year on average tilling contaminated land courtesy of Chevron, Chevron grosses about $250 billion per year and is the third largest corporation in the U.S. Chevron CEO John Watson takes home around $30 million per year -- or 60,000 times as much as each of his victims in the rainforest.

Hainey might remember that Chevron originally fought for ten years to avoid jurisdiction in the United States. The company filed 14 sworn affidavits before U.S. courts praising Ecuador's courts as fair and accepted jurisdiction in Ecuador as a condition of the change of venue. But once the scientific evidence mounted against it in the Ecuador trial, Chevron sold its assets in the country and started to attack the court system it had previously praised.

Hainey's reasoning no doubt will be recognized as extremely disturbing by Canadian appellate courts, which have a long history of being open to the claims of human rights victims. A previous trial judge tried to block the enforcement trial in 2013 only to be unanimously overturned by two Canadian appellate courts, including the country's Supreme Court.

While Hainey closets himself behind mechanical arguments, human rights victims the world over rightly shudder at his reasoning. Courts like those in Ecuador make valiant efforts to advance the rule of law to hold polluters accountable. To be undermined by a trial judge in a faraway land is both demoralizing and a blow to civil society institutions everywhere.

People actually die from pollution as a result of delays produced by incorrect legal decisions.

As said, Canada's Supreme Court already blocked Chevron's earlier attempt to stop the Ecuadorian villagers from launching what in the commercial context would be considered a routine asset seizure action. Canada's appellate courts should order Chevron to defend itself in a speedy enforcement trial that will have zero tolerance for further litigation abuse.

Monday, January 23, 2017

In Canada, Chevron Faces New Nightmare Scenario Over Ecuador Pollution Liability

A Canadian trial judge on Friday issued a ruling allowing indigenous villagers in Ecuador to try to seize critical Chevron assets in the country to pay for the clean-up of the billions of gallons of toxic waste the company dumped into Ecuador's rainforest. The ruling has enormous implications for the rule of law, the corporate accountability movement, and for Chevron shareholders.

After five years of obstructionism by Chevron in Canada, Judge Glenn Hainey of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice finally gave the green light for the rainforest communities to have a trial to target Chevron assets to pay the $12 billion tab needed to remediate their ancestral lands. The affected communities filed their enforcement action in Toronto in 2012 after winning a court battle the previous year in Ecuador that awarded them the damages.

Chevron refused to pay the judgment, selling off its assets in Ecuador and hiding behind narrow technical arguments. Chevron had accepted jurisdiction in Ecuador and later was found to have committed fraud in the trial by falsifying evidence, trying to hide contamination from the court, and engaging in a sham remediation.

Here are some of the important implications from the latest Canada decision:

Chevron has definitively lost its bid to avoid an enforcement trial in Canada. Chevron used every technical defense in the book to avoid the Canada enforcement trial. Even Canada's Supreme Court ruled against Chevron. Now it must face a terrifying day of reckoning over how its key witness, Alberto Guerra, has lied under oath and that his fundamental story about judicial bribery is false.

Chevron's U.S. lawyer Randy Mastro will face enormous risk. American lawyers Randy Mastro and Avi Weitzman of the U.S. law firm Gibson Dunn violated the law by arranging for Guerra to be paid $2 million for his false testimony in a farcical retaliation trial in the U.S.  Mastro and his team coached Guerra for 53 consecutive days before he testified; Guerra later admitted lying on the stand. Gibson Dunn's obstruction of justice will be front and center in the Canada proceeding.

Look for Chevron's executives to try to settle before the trial: Chevron shareholders already are up in arms over management's mishandling of the Ecuador liability. Look for embattled CEO John Watson to order his lawyers to try to settle the case before Guerra is forced to take the stand and the company's entire narrative falls apart.

Chevron's strategy of perpetual delay just got shellacked. Trial judge Hainey tossed out two of the company's main defenses which already had been litigated and rejected by three layers of courts in Ecuador. The company will be kept on a short leash in Canada, undermining its strategy of delaying any judicial procedure that could hold it accountable on the merits.

Chevron is kidding itself if it thinks its Canadian subsidiary is immune from liability. The part of the Hainey decision that immunized Chevron's wholly-owned subsidiary from enforcement runs counter to logic, violates the spirit of a prior decision of the Canada Supreme Court, and is likely to be reversed on appeal.  Ten separate Canadian appellate judges already have reversed a similar ruling when issued by a prior trial judge in 2013.

Karen Hinton, the spokesperson for the villagers, was forceful in her response to the latest development. She called it a "resounding victory for Ecuadorian indigenous groups and farmer communities who have struggled for more than two decades to clean up its toxic waste."

Hinton added:
The court sent Chevron a powerful message that it can no longer ride the legal merry-go-round and re-litigate the same discredited defenses in different courts as part of its strategy of delay...The villagers expect to proceed later this year with their seizure of Chevron's assets to force the company to respect multiple court judgments that found it guilty of dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into the waterways of Ecuador, causing an outbreak of cancer and other harms afflicting thousands of people. Ultimately, we are confident that Canada's courts will hold Chevron fully accountable for its outrageous and criminal conduct in Ecuador.
Carlos Guaman, an Ecuador community leader and the executive director of the coalition that brought the enforcement action, said he wanted to "thank" Canada's courts "for sending a strong message to Chevron that its outrageous strategy of blocking justice will soon end."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Chevron's Massive Pollution In Ecuador Frames Death of Legendary Nurse Rosa Moreno

Rosa Moreno, the legendary nurse in Ecuador who spent three decades treating children and others afflicted with cancer in the area of Chevron's oil pollution in the Amazon rainforest, has now herself succumbed to cancer, the Amazon Defense Coalition reported on Wednesday. One might reasonably question whether Chevron's refusal to clean up its pollution in Ecuador played a role in this tragic event.

Moreno, a splendid human being well-known to those of us who write The Chevron Pit, died this week in the Amazon village of San Carlos after a two-year battle with the illness. Moreno, 55, had hosted a long line of celebrities -- including Brad Pitt and the actor Trudie Styler -- in her tiny health clinic in the town of San Carlos as she tried to sensitize the world to the plight of people who won a historic $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in 2013.
Rosa Moreno in front of the San Carlos clinic
San Carlos is akin to Love Canal in the United States, only worse. For decades the village has been home to dozens of toxic waste Superfund sites that include open-air waste pits filled with oil sludge that that were built by Texaco in the 1970s and abandoned. Texaco installed pipes to run the toxic waste into nearby streams and rivers relied on by locals for drinking water. The pits were documented in a report on 60 Minutes and in the documentary Crude by acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger.

Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and inherited the liability from the disaster. Over the years, the company has used 60 law firms and roughly 2,000 lawyers to evade paying for the court-mandated clean-up.

Aside from the pits, one of which is pictured below, Texaco located a large oil separation station in the middle of town. The station systematically discharged billions of gallons of benzene-laced production waters into rivers and streams, creating a ticking time bomb that has killed or threatens to kill thousands of people. Chevron never even extended the courtesy of putting up fences around the hazardous waste sites to keep animals out and to warn people away.

Oil pit built by Texaco in the 1970s and abandoned by Chevron near San Carlos, where Rosa Moreno lived.

Moreno was a bright light in the middle of what might be the most contaminated town on earth. From a press release from the Amazon Defense Coalition, the grass roots organization that brought the historic lawsuit against Chevron:
Moreno was mostly known as a person who tried against all odds to stave off the impending health disaster with her compassionate care of young children. Her clinic was a short walk from her house, and she was often found there seven days per week. Moreno meticulously kept a handwritten log of people in the clinic who had died, often without receiving proper treatment given the paucity of doctors in the area. The list in recent years had grown to dozens of names -- many young children -- even though only 2,000 people lived in the town. Each name on the list had a date of birth and date of death scrawled in Moreno's distinctive script.
Steven Donziger, the longtime U.S. legal advisor to the affected Ecuadorian communities who has been targeted by Chevron for his work to hold the company accountable, laid some of the blame for Moreno's death at the feet of the company:
I firmly believe Rosa and many others like her in San Carlos would not have died had Chevron mets its legal and moral responsibilities to the people of Ecuador. Rosa's death, like those of many others in Ecuador, was entirely preventable. Chevron should provide compensation to her family and medicine and diagnostic equipment for the San Carlos clinic, in addition to remediating the abysmal environmental conditions that continue to put innocent lives at risk.
Moreno's legacy will live on in many ways.

Many of the celebrities who visited Moreno in her clinic took action to alleviate the human suffering and to protest Chevron's outrageous behavior. They include Styler, who has written articles to call attention to Chevron's human rights abuses and who started a project with UNICEF that has delivered clean water to numerous villages in the affected area.

Rosa Moreno and colleague Mariana Jimenez in San Francisco
Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA), the only U.S. Congressman to visit the devastated area, toured the health clinic in 2008 and then vividly described the horrific conditions created by Chevron in a moving letter to President-elect Obama. Bianca Jagger went to Chevron's shareholder meeting and gave the company's CEO hell in a blistering speech. Berlinger's film included Moreno and scenes from her clinic.

Karen Hinton, the former press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, has hounded Chevron for its irresponsible behavior in Ecuador in a series of blogs published on The Huffington Post. And Donziger -- a classmate of Barack Obama from Harvard Law School -- has been a thorn in Chevron's side for more than two decades, as his own writings illustrate.

If you have any doubt about the cause of Moreno's death, look no further than the numerous independent studies that demonstrate Chevron's toxic legacy has produced skyrocketing cancer rates in the area where she lived. One study from a former Rand Corporation analyst predicts 9,000 deaths in the affected area in the coming years if Chevron refuses to remediate the disaster.

For more on Texaco and Chevron's dastardly behavior in Ecuador, see this video.

Although Chevron's management team surely never thought it possible, Rosa was among the many impoverished Ecuadorians who banded together and fought for years before finally holding the company legally accountable in 2011 after an eight-year trial. In a paradigmatic breakthrough in the human rights area, several prominent corporate law and litigation firms around the world signed up to represent the villagers. And in 2013, Ecuador's Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the trial court ruling in a 222-page decision that meticulously documented the overwhelming evidence against Chevron.

Although the lawsuit originally was filed in the U.S., the trial was held in Ecuador at Chevron's request and the company willingly accepted jurisdiction there. Of course, Chevron thought it could engineer a political dismissal by pressuring Ecuador's government. That unethical strategy backfired.

Chevron's continued obstinance -- it sold off its assets in Ecuador during the trial and has vowed to fight "until hell freezes over" -- forced Rosa and her friends to try to seize company assets in Canada to pay for their clean-up. That country's Supreme Court recently backed the villagers in a unanimous opinion. Chevron is now facing its own ticking time bomb in court.

Rosa, your legacy will inspire the affected communities and their allies around the world to fight on until Chevron pays the court judgment in full and the responsible individuals are held accountable for their misconduct.