A battle between law firms that's rooted in the Amazon

By Amanda Becker
Monday, February 14, 2011

A spat between two law firms squaring off over environmental damage in the Amazon intensified last week, with Patton Boggs naming Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as a co-conspirator in a lawsuit against Chevron, saying the firm's attorneys have aided their client in an intimidation campaign to deter Patton Boggs from representing the Ecuadorian nationals suing the oil giant.

The move was the latest unorthodox twist in a long-fought legal battle waged in both the United States and Ecuador, where the plaintiffs have asked for $113 billion in damages and a court is expected to announce its ruling any day.

Patton Boggs filed a lawsuit against Chevron in November, asking a federal court to green-light its involvement after receiving a letter from Gibson Dunn that suggested a possible conflict of interest, given that Chevron had employed lobbyists at the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, which had recently been acquired by Patton Boggs.

Patton Boggs has asked to include Chevron's legal team at Gibson Dunn as defendants because they "are systematically attempting to destroy this contractual relationship with their shameless tactics," according to the amended complaint filed with a federal court in the District on Feb. 7.

In an interview, Gibson Dunn's Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. characterized the request as baseless because the firm has never formally asked to disqualify Patton Boggs, which continues to represent the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. "This is a frivolous and incoherent filing" that is "legally and factually utterly flawed," Boutrous said.

The clash between the two firms stems from their roles as opposing counsel in a case that pits the indigenous people of Ecuador's Lago Agrio region against Chevron. The lawsuit alleges Texaco's decades-long excavation for oil in the Amazon resulted in widespread environmental damage that caused birth defects and other health issues, and it claims Chevron is now responsible after merging with Texaco in 2001.

Since the lawsuit was filed in 1993, the case has bounced between courts here and abroad, with Chevron on Feb. 1 filing its own counter lawsuit that accuses the plaintiffs' prior legal team of racketeering. A federal court in Manhattan last week granted the company's request to temporarily block any verdict levied against it by the court in Ecuador while its counterclaim is pending.

The conflict-of-interest dispute will be heard here in the District. In Gibson Dunn's initial response, the firm argued the complaint should be dismissed, saying disputes should be resolved if and when they arise. It further noted the firm had recently obtained evidence Patton Boggs provided "behind-the-scenes legal advice" to the plaintiffs long before it was on the record as counsel, and before Chevron's relationship with the Breaux-Lott shop had been terminated.

"Any case or controversy that may arise in the future should be resolved by the court in which it arises," Gibson Dunn argued in its response. "It bears noting, however, that should Chevron seek to disqualify Patton Boggs, it would have very strong arguments for doing so."

Patton Boggs's James Tyrrell Jr., who is handling the Ecuadorians' appeal, said Gibson Dunn has long known about his firm's role in the case. He further noted that the lobbying work referenced in the filing was done at a time when Breaux-Lott was an independent shop. When it was acquired by Patton Boggs, Chevron was notified and the oil company terminated the relationship. At the time, Chevron did not take issue with Patton Boggs's work on other issues that the oil company opposed.

"Knowing at the time that Breaux-Lott was being acquired by the very firm that opposed them on the trade treaty renewal between the United States and Ecuador, Chevron did not say we should be disqualified, they simply advised that their confidences should be honored," Tyrrell said. "The notion that this is some sort of significant revelation is an attempt to make a significant flash out of no substance."

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