Victory! Judge thwarts Chevron's attempt to open Amazon Watch's confidential files

Yesterday, in a major victory for our friends at Amazon Watch (AW) and ERI’s legal team, a Federal Judge in California quashed two sweeping subpoenas issued to AW by Chevron Corporation. ERI, serving as AW’s lawyers, successfully argued that the subpoenas violated Amazon Watch’s First Amendment rights and were unduly burdensome and intended to harass one of Chevron’s public critics.

Amazon Watch is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting justice for indigenous groups in the Amazon. For more than a decade, Amazon Watch has been publicly critical of Chevron’s legacy of pollution, which has harmed the health and the environment of thousands of villagers in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The subpoenas sought AW’s internal documents and testimony related to its advocacy campaign against Chevron.

Since December, ERI has been defending Amazon Watch against Chevron’s effort to gain access to Amazon Watch’s campaign playbook. The task hasn’t always been easy, since ERI and Amazon Watch were up against Chevron’s army of lawyers.

The subpoenas were issued in connection with Chevron’s efforts to avoid an $18 billion judgment issued in 2011 by a court in Ecuador against the company for dumping toxic waste into Amazon waterways used by indigenous groups for drinking water. Chevron has refused to pay. Instead, it filed a civil racketeering (RICO) suit in New York against the Ecuadorian Plaintiffs, their counsel, and other individuals involved in the effort to hold Chevron accountable, claiming a global conspiracy to obtain a fraudulent judgment against Chevron. According to Chevron, this “global conspiracy” includes, academics, New York State officials, environmental consultants, activists, law firms, indigenous communities and two Ecuadorian courts.

As part of its lawsuit in New York, Chevron has sought intrusive discovery from those, including AW, who have dared to speak out about its activities in the Amazon. It has already received unprecedented discovery from parties to the litigation and a number of non-parties. The company has issued more than 100 subpoenas requesting documents and already conducted more than 320 hours of depositions, including more than 16 days from Steven Donziger, the alleged mastermind of the “conspiracy.” Chevron has also sought discovery from journalists, activists, lawyers, and even from its own shareholders.

Although Chevron has falsely branded Amazon Watch as a “co-conspirator,” Chevron could not and cannot provide any evidence of wrongdoing by Amazon Watch. Indeed, Amazon Watch has done no more than participate in an advocacy campaign critical of Chevron—exactly what the First Amendment protects.

Yesterday, the court in San Francisco reminded Chevron of this simple truth. Ruling from the bench to quash Chevron’s subpoenas, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins said he had to balance the First Amendment rights of Amazon Watch against Chevron’s alleged need for discovery, and noted that Chevron had not tailored its requests to avoid infringing on AW’s free speech rights. 

ERI awaits Magistrate Judge Cousins’s written ruling.