The Man Imprisoned Within his Home for Over Two Years: The Case of Steven Donziger v. Chevron

Steven Donziger speaks outside of the U.S. District Court in New York on the last day of his trial in May 2021. Photo: Ryland West/ALM

Steven Donziger, the environmental lawyer who won a 9.5 billion dollar lawsuit against Chevron, served his last day under house arrest just a few weeks ago, a nearly 1,000-day punishment of isolation. But why was Donziger confined to his living space, along with prison time, after winning a case against the oil giant? In an example of how the system is irreparably corrupt, and those in power will punish any for calling for justice, Donziger’s name is another added to that fire.

In 1993, Steven Donziger, an environmental and human rights lawyer, filed a lawsuit against the Chevron corporation for spilling oil within indigenous lands within the Amazon rainforest. Donziger represented Ecuadorian locals whose lands were left a toxic mess after Chevron cut through its rainforests and spilled oil onto the land. The case was successful, and in the 2010s, Chevron was ordered to pay over 9 billion dollars to help in the damage dealt. In a just and fair system, that would be the end of the story, but we do not live in such a system.

Chevron never paid that settlement. Instead, they argued for years that a prior 1998 settlement between Texaco and Ecuador of $40 million absolved them of any liability, and blamed most of the damage on Ecuador’s state-run oil company. Chevron also went after the lawyer who represented that case. Even though Donziger had represented this case in the early 90s, legal troubles and criminal investigations hounded him for decades. Chevron alleged that Donziger had fabricated evidence, bribed officials, and obstructed justice. Chevron was prepared to ruin Donziger, and they used every measure that a multi-billion dollar corporation could.

“As Donziger was arguing the case against Chevron in Ecuador back in 2009, the company said its long-term strategy was to demonize him. And, since then, Chevron has waged an all-out assault on Donziger in what’s become one of the most bitter and drawn-out cases in the history of environmental law.

Chevron has hired private investigators to track Donziger, created a publication just to smear him, and put together a legal team of hundreds of lawyers from 60 firms, who have successfully pursued an extraordinary campaign against him.

As a result, Donziger has been disbarred; his bank accounts have been frozen; he has had a lien placed on his apartment; he faces exorbitant fines, and he was prohibited from earning money. A court seized his passport and put him on house arrest. Chevron, which has a market capitalization of $316 billion, has the funds to continue targeting Donziger for as long as it chooses.” (The Intercept, Steven Donziger vs. Big Oil, April 27th, 2022)

The case against Donziger was levied by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan in 2014 with contempt of court as Donziger refused to give up decades of communications between clients through his computer and phone. Kaplan, a former corporate lawyer, supported Chevron’s claims of malpractice, but that case was dismissed after the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute. But Kaplan didn’t stop there. In a truly bizarre and unprecedented step, Judge Kaplan appointed a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, to represent the U.S. government and prosecute Donziger. Interestingly, Seward & Kissel have represented many gas and oil companies, including Chevron. Kaplan also appointed the judge that would later sentence Donziger to almost 1,000 days of home detention, all without a trial.

Yet this never deterred Steven Donziger. He served more than two years of house arrest and spent his time in prison despite Chevron and their cronies’ best attempts to ruin him. He continued to advocate for his position and pleaded his case throughout his detainment. He is still determined to pursue the fight, looking to be once again reinstated as a lawyer and continue to represent those whose human rights have been violated. Like many oil giants, corporations will continue to exploit the Earth and cause serious detriment to people’s livelihoods if they are not held accountable and seriously punished within our systems of justice. People like Steven Donziger highlight the need to keep fighting for what is right, even at tremendous costs to oneself.

Written by Sean Duffy: Content Writer at VotingSmarter

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store