Steven R. Donziger

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Date published 2021-10-05
Curation date 2021-10-05
Curator Dr. Victoria A. Stuart, Ph.D.
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Summary Steven R. Donziger is an American attorney known for his legal battles with Chevron, particularly the Lago Agrio oil field case.
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Steven R. Donziger
steven_donziger.jpg Steven Donziger attends his pre-sentencing rally [source].
Personal Details
Name Steven R. Donziger
Born 1961-09-14
Birthplace Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.A.
Marital status Married
  • Son
  • Mother: social activist
Relatives Grandfather: Aaron E. Koota (former: Brooklyn district attorney; Justice of the New York State Supreme Court)
Nationality American
Residence Manhattan, New York, U.S.A.
  • Former journalist
  • Human rights lawyer
Former website (defunct)


Steven R. Donziger (born September 14, 1961) is an American attorney known for his legal battles with Chevron, particularly the Lago Agrio oil field case.

Steven Donziger represented over 30,000 farmers and indigenous Ecuadorians in a case against Chevron Corporation related to environmental damage and health effects caused by oil drilling. The Ecuadorian courts awarded the plaintiffs $9.5 billion in damages, which led Chevron to withdraw its assets from Ecuador and launch legal action against Donziger in the U.S. In 2011, Chevron filed a RICO suit against Donziger in New York City. The case was heard by U.S. District Judge   Lewis A. Kaplan, who determined that the ruling of the Ecuadorian courts could not be enforced in the United States because it was procured by fraud, bribery, and racketeering activities. As a result of this case, Donziger was disbarred from practicing law in New York in 2018.

After having been under house arrest since August 2019 awaiting trial on charges of criminal contempt of court, which arose during his appeal against Kaplan's RICO decision, in July 2021 U.S. district judge Loretta Preska found him guilty; he was sentenced to 6 months in jail in October 2021. While under house arrest, in 2020 twenty-nine Nobel laureates described the actions taken by Chevron Corporation against Steven Donziger as "judicial harassment" and human rights campaigners have described Chevron's actions as an example of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). In April 2021, six members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus demanded that the United States Department of Justice review Donziger's case. In September 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights ruled that the pre-trial detention imposed on Donziger was illegal and called for his release.

Early Life and Education

Steven Donziger's mother was a social activist who raised him in Jacksonville, Florida. She took him to picket in support of César Chávez's   Salad Bowl strike. Donziger's grandfather was Aaron E. Koota, at different times a Brooklyn district attorney and Justice of the New York State Supreme Court.

Steven Donziger studied history at American University  (B.A.) where he also wrote for his college newspaper. Donziger graduated from Harvard Law School  (J.D.) in 1991.


After graduating from college, Steven Donziger worked as a journalist. Donziger's first job was in the United Press International bureau in Managua, after which he freelanced in Nicaragua for The Fort Lauderdale News, the Toronto Star, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also founded Project Due Process which offered legal services to Cubans who arrived in the U.S.A. in the Mariel boatlift.

After working as a journalist for three years, Steven Donziger went to Harvard Law School, where he played basketball with Barack Obama. He graduated from law school in 1991 and worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C. In 1991, he visited Iraq as part of a mission that produced a report on the impact of bombing on civilians during the first Gulf War. The report was adopted by the United Nations. Donziger was the editor of The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission, published in 1996 by Harper Perennial. The book described the role of media in increasing fear of crime, racial injustice in the criminal justice system and argues against mandatory minimum sentences.

Class Action Lawsuit Against Chevron

  • See also:
  • Starting in the 1970s, Texaco conducted oil drilling operations in the Amazon in partnership with Ecuador's national oil company, Petroecuador. In the 1990s Texaco came to a $40 million agreement with Ecuador to clean up some of the resultant pollution, and had their liability released.

    Steven Donziger was asked by Frente de Defensa de la Amazonía to help win compensation for the pollution and health effects caused by oil drilling in the Lago Agrio oil field, a region that became known as the "Amazon Chernobyl." He visited Ecuador in 1993, where he says he saw "what honestly looked like an apocalyptic disaster," including children walking barefoot down oil-covered roads and jungle lakes filled with oil. In 1993, after he visited Ecuador, Donziger and other attorneys brought a class-action lawsuit in New York against Texaco on behalf of over 30,000 farmers and Indigenous people from the Amazon region. Since the plaintiffs had no money, Donziger, with Frente de Defensa de la Amazonía support, funded the case by offering investors a small part of any eventual settlement. The lawyers chose to file in New York because, in 1993, Texaco's headquarters were in New York. The lawsuit charged that Texaco's oil drilling in the Amazon had resulted in massive contamination. Chevron Corporation bought Texaco in 2001 and argued that Texaco had cleaned up its area of operations and that its partner, Petroecuador, was responsible for any remaining pollution.

    Chevron requested that the case be tried in Ecuador and in 2002, U.S. courts ruled that Ecuador had jurisdiction. The U.S. court exacted a promise from Chevron that it would accept the decision of the Ecuadorian courts.

    When the case moved to Ecuador, Steven Donziger conducted a public education campaign to inform Ecuadoreans about the pollution of the Amazon. He said that "the indigenous people would never get a fair trial in Ecuador if they did not illuminate what had happened to them and get public support." Donziger appeared in the 2009 documentary film Crude which explored a two-year period in the case. A provincial Ecuadorean court found Chevron Corporation guilty in 2011 and awarded the plaintiffs $18 billion in damages. The decision was affirmed by three appellate courts including Ecuador's highest court, the National Court of Justice, although the damages were reduced to $9.5 billion.

    To avoid paying the damages awarded by the court in Ecuador, Chevron moved its assets out of the country, leading the plaintiffs to seek enforcement actions in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina for confiscation of Chevron's assets. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal stated that appeals courts in Argentina and Brazil's Superior Court of Justice rejected Steven Donziger's petitions to have the Ecuadorean judgment enforced. In 2017, a Canadian court held that the Ecuadorean plaintiffs could not be awarded assets of Chevron's Canadian subsidiary as the subsidiary was legally distinct from its U.S. parent. In 2019, the Ecuadorean plaintiffs ended their Canadian lawsuit against Chevron.

    In 2018, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that the $9.5 billion judgment in Ecuador was marked by fraud and corruption and "should not be recognised or enforced by the courts of other States." The amount Ecuador must pay to Chevron Corporation to compensate for damages is yet to be determined. The award found that Ecuador violated its obligations under international treaties, investment agreements and international law. The Court of Arbitration's findings of fraudulent activities included that the evidence placed before the Court is "the most thorough documentary, video, and testimonial proof of fraud ever put before an arbitral tribunal," that the plaintiffs championed by the film actually were engaged in blackmail and bribery of Ecuadorian judges. Their efforts triggered an order to appoint an "expert" friendly to the plaintiffs, that Ecuadorian government prosecutors "actively cooperated" with the plaintiffs, that the plaintiffs bribed the "experts" and ghostwrote their report and that the plaintiffs paid a retired judge to draft the acting judge's orders - and that the same judge solicited bribes that Chevron refused to pay.

    Counter-Litigation Against Donziger

    Chevron Corporation noted that a scene in the documentary film Crude presented at the Sundance Film Festival showed an environmental scientist present at a legal strategy meeting of plaintiffs' lawyers; the same scientist was later appointed by the Ecuadorian court as an ostensibly impartial expert to write a report on technical issues, but the scene was cut from the theatrical release. Chevron lawyers wanted to know what other potentially compromising scenes were left out by the film's director, Joe Berlinger. On 2010-05-06, federal judge Lewis A. Kaplan sided with a petition submitted by Chevron and ruled that Berlinger turn over more than 600 hours of original footage created during the film's production. Chevron had sought to subpoena the footage as part of the ongoing lawsuit discussed in the film. Berlinger's legal team has maintained that the footage is protected by reporters' privilege and appealed the court's decision.

    In his appeal, Berlinger noted that he was a highly awarded and respected independent filmmaker, that he was independent of Steven Donziger, and argued that he had in fact gone to great lengths to make Crude a balanced portrayal. Berlinger acknowledged that he had "tweaked" some scenes at Donziger's request. The scene showing the environmental scientist at the legal strategy session had been cut from the theatrical release (but not the online version for Netflix) after one of the plaintiff lawyers objected to Berlinger that showing the scene was "so serious we could lose everything." The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed the scope slightly (Berlinger had to turn over 500 hours of outtakes, rather than 600), but in 2011 upheld the lower court ruling against Berlinger, Judge Pierre Leval writing for the court: "Those who do not retain independence as to what they will publish but are subservient to the objectives of others who have a stake in what will be published have either a weaker privilege or none at all."

    In 2011, Chevron Corporation filed a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit against Steven Donziger in New York City, accusing him of bribing an Ecuadorean judge, ghostwriting the damages judgment against it, and "fixing" scientific studies. Chevron's civil suit initially sought $60 billion in damages which would have required a trial by jury. Chevron removed the request for damages two weeks prior to trial, allowing the case to be tried by judge alone. Chevron stated that it wanted to focus "the RICO case on obtaining injunctive relief against the furtherance of Donziger's extortionate scheme against the company." U.S. District Judge   Lewis A. Kaplan was assigned as the judge.

    In 2014, Steven Donziger estimated that the legal fees Chevron Corporation was paying to appeal had already exceeded $2 billion. In 2021, Chevron estimated its legal fees at nearly $1 billion.

    Kaplan's 2014 Ruling in the RICO Case

    In 2014, Kaplan ruled that the judgment in Ecuador was invalid because Steven Donziger had achieved it through offenses against legal ethics, including racketeering, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, judicial bribery, coercion, witness tampering, and arranging for expert's reports to be ghostwritten. Kaplan said the process in Ecuador was "not fair or impartial and did not comport with the requirements of due process" and was "not entitled to recognition." In subsequent defenses of the ruling, Kaplan referred to the Ecuadorians involved in the class action suit as "so-called plaintiffs." Kaplan described Donziger's conduct as "criminal" in his 2014 ruling, but the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District Court of New York declined to prosecute him.

    The case relied in large part on the testimony of Alberto Guerra, a former Ecuadorean judge whom Chevron Corporation had moved to the United States from Ecuador in 2013 for safety reasons. Chevron paid for immigration lawyers for Guerra and his family and provided him with a monthly salary of $12,000 for housing and living expenses. In the RICO trial, Guerra alleged that Steven Donziger had arranged for him to ghostwrite the verdict that was delivered against Chevron in Ecuador. Guerra stated that the judge who heard the case signed the verdict which Guerra had prepared and the two shared payment of $500,000 from the plaintiffs, led by Donziger. In Kaplan's conclusion to the RICO case, he highlighted this as primary evidence for the racketeering charge. In his judgment, Kaplan wrote that "Guerra on many occasions has acted deceitfully and broken the law ... but that does not necessarily mean that it should be disregarded wholesale." He found that the "evidence leads to one conclusion: Guerra told the truth regarding the bribe and the essential fact as to who wrote the Judgment." In 2015, Guerra testified to an international tribunal that he had lied and changed his story multiple times in the RICO trial. Guerra admitted that there was no evidence supporting the allegation that Donziger bribed him or paid him for delivering a ghostwritten judgment, and that large parts of Guerra's testimony in the RICO case were either exaggerated or untrue. Kaplan also ordered Donziger to pay Chevron $800,000 on the RICO claim and barred Donziger from selling shares in the Ecuadorian judgment to investors.

    In 2016, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals declined to consider Guerra's admissions and unanimously upheld Kaplan's ruling.

    In March 2021, the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard an appeal against prior court orders made by Kaplan against Steven Donziger in a civil contempt action brought by Chevron Corporation. The appeals court ruled that Kaplan's decision, which prevented Donziger from financing his court case by selling shares in any future award, was unenforceable. The appeals court also vacated Chevron's request for $4.1 million in damages and a $660,000 sanction against Donziger. Other aspects of Kaplan's original civil contempt ruling were upheld.

    Disbarment in New York

    Steven Donziger was suspended from practicing law in New York in July 2018, based on rulings by U.S. District Judge   in the Chevron Corporation case. An independent legal referee recommended his reinstatement in February 2020. An appeals court ruled in August 2020 that the referee had been too lenient, and disbarred Donziger in New York. Martin Garbus, Donziger's lawyer, said the decision deprives Ecuadorians represented by Donziger of their main advocate and singles Donziger out because he "threatens Chevron and the fossil fuel industry."

    Criminal Contempt Charge

    As part of the appeal process after the initial ruling, Kaplan ordered Steven Donziger to submit his computer, phones, and other electronic devices to Chevron Corporation to allow it to search for his assets. Donziger refused, arguing that doing so would violate the attorney-client privilege of his clients, and appealed the order on constitutional grounds. While Donziger's appeal against the order was pending, Kaplan charged him with six counts of criminal contempt of court. The contempt charges allege that Donziger failed to comply with Kaplan's orders to submit his electronic devices and passport and to drop attempts to collect on the award against Chevron. In a move described as "virtually unprecedented" by The Intercept, Kaplan appointed a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, to prosecute Donziger after the Southern District Court of New York declined to do so. Jacobin magazine noted that Seward & Kissel has represented Chevron Corporation directly as recently as 2018. Chris Hedges wrote that neither Lewis A, Kaplan nor Seward & Kissel disclosed that Chevron had been a client.

    Rather than using the standard random assignment process for choosing a judge to preside over Steven Donziger's trial for criminal contempt, Kaplan chose senior District Judge Loretta Preska. In August 2019, Preska sentenced Donziger to home detention while awaiting trial. He was required to wear a GPS-equipped ankle bracelet. Preska ordered Donziger to post a bail bond of $800,000, which is a record for a misdemeanor case in the U.S.A. In May 2020, Preska ruled that Donziger's case would not be heard by a jury, which Donziger had requested. On May 18, 2020, Preska refused a request from Donziger's lawyer to allow Donziger to leave his apartment for three hours a day because she regarded him as a flight risk. The U.S. District court disqualified two of Donziger's attorneys from appearing for him in the contempt trial. In August 2020, after two other attorneys were unable to appear in the trial, Preska ordered Andrew Frisch, Donziger's former lead defense attorney, to represent him. Martin Garbus, who also represents Donziger but was unable to attend the trial, said a trial with Frisch would not be "a constitutionally protected case" and that "Donziger is being forced to go to trial with a lawyer who doesn't want to be in the case, who doesn't get along with Donziger, and claims that before Donziger goes ahead with the trial he should pay him additional moneys."

    The contempt case was scheduled to begin in September 2020. Citing coronavirus concerns, Steven Donziger's fourth lawyer, Lauren Regan, requested in late October 2020 that the civil trial be rescheduled for a third time. The trial was rescheduled to begin on 2020-11-09, then delayed until January 2021 for Donziger to have legal representation. In the face of objections to holding the trial virtually, Preska rescheduled the trial to take place in person on May 10, 2021. Donziger asked Preska to allow his criminal contempt trial to be livestreamed via Zoom because of restrictions on public attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic and significant public interest in the case. Preska rejected Donziger's request and Donziger then asked that proceedings be televised. This request was also denied.

    On July 26, 2021, after almost two years of home detention, Steven Donziger was found guilty by Judge Preska on all six contempt charges, and is facing a maximum six-month jail sentence. Judge Preska wrote that the contempt case had nothing to do with any responsibility Chevron Corporation might have for pollution in Ecuador's rainforest. On October 1, 2021, Judge Preska sentenced Donziger to six months in prison. His lawyer called the sentence "outrageous" and Donziger plans to appeal.


    In 2018, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal claimed that "Donziger's attempted looting of Chevron Corporation for spurious environmental crimes in Ecuador ranks among the biggest legal scams in history." The editorial called Donziger's disbarment "a step toward reining in Mr. Donziger's marauding."

    Steven Donziger's contempt charge and house arrest have been harshly condemned by legal advocates. Lawyer's Rights Watch Canada points out that Donziger has been under house arrest for longer than the six-month maximum sentence that contempt of court carries. Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson criticized Chevron Corporation and Lewis A, Kaplan, stating that the corruption and bribery charges were a "means to protect the oil company from having to answer for its degradation of the Amazon." In 2020, a group of twenty-nine Nobel laureates condemned "judicial harassment" by Chevron and urged the release of Donziger. Human rights campaigners described the treatment of Donziger as an example of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), which are used to censor,   intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

    The European Parliament, one of the three branches of the European Union, requested that the Congressional Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties investigate Chevron Corporation's treatment of Steven Donziger as "not consistent with what has traditionally been the strong support in the United States for the rule of law generally and for protection for human rights defenders in particular."

    In a March 2020 article in The Nation, James North wrote that "the mainstream press has largely ignored the legal attacks against Steven Donziger, but Chevron's counteroffensive could endanger human rights and environmental work around the world." In an August 2020 article, Chris Hedges detailed the measures taken by Chevron to pressure mainstream media outlets, including Fox NewsGQ magazine, and The New York Times, to drop stories about the Chevron and Donziger litigation.

    In July 2020, Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness said that the treatment of Steven Donziger "is intended to intimidate the rest of us, to chill the work of other environmental and corporate accountability advocates."

    In February 2021, a law student boycott against Seward & Kissel began, involving around 300 law students from around 50 law schools. In a letter, the students state that the firm has a conflict of interest in prosecuting Steven Donziger in the criminal contempt case, saying: "We, the undersigned law students, refuse to consider employment with the firm until it withdraws from its conflicted position as Chevron Corporation's private prosecutor." The student group Law Students for Climate Accountability launched a similar boycott in April 2021 against Gibson Dunn, a law firm that has also lobbied to keep Donziger confined alongside other climate-related campaigns, including litigation and advocacy in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Koch Industries.

    On April 27, 2021, Democrats  Jim McGovern,   Cori Bush,   Rashida Tlaib,   Jamaal Bowman,   Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,  and Jamie Raskin wrote a letter calling for oversight by United States Attorney General Merrick Garland out of "deep concerns that the unprecedented nature of Mr. Donziger's pending legal case is tied to his previous work against Chevron."This was later followed by a letter addressed to United States District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf from Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

    Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has been critical of the U.S. media's coverage of Steven Donziger's trial and house arrest. In July 2021, FAIR wrote that The New York Times had not published an article about Steven Donziger since 2014 and that articles in the U.S. corporate media largely favored Chevron Corporation. FAIR quoted an interview given by Donziger to Breakthrough News in which Donziger said, "No matter what you think of me or Judge Lewis A, Kaplan, isn't it newsworthy that an American lawyer is under house arrest for two years on a misdemeanor?"

    Personal Life

    Steven Donziger is married and has a son. The family lives in a two bedroom Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. Donziger is on the Board of Advisors to the Fortune Society.

    Steven Donziger appeared on the 2021-05-20, episode of The Daily Show and talked with Roy Wood Jr.

    Additional Reading

  • [📌 pinned article] [, 2021-10-1] Six-Month Sentence for Lawyer Who Took on Chevron Denounced as 'International Outrage'.  Conviction of Steven Donziger, said one critic, "perfectly encapsulates how corporate power has twisted the U.S. justice system to protect corporate interests and punish their enemies."  |  "Chevron Corporation caused a mass industrial poisoning in the Amazon that crushed the lives of Indigenous peoples. Six courts and 28 appellate judges found the company guilty. Fight on." -- Steven Donziger

  • [, 2021-10-25] Facing Prison, Steven Donziger Refuses to Be Silenced.  The environmentalist lawyer says Chevron has "to try and destroy what I represent."

  • [, 2021-10-06] Gibson Dunn:  Chevron Firm Which Hounded Donziger Has Allies In The Biden Administration

  • [, 2021-10-06] Steven Donziger Was Imprisoned by the 1 Percent's Favorite Judge.  Loretta Preska, the judge who did Chevron's bidding in the case against activist Steven Donziger, has a history of conflicts of interest and pro-corporate rulings. And she's not alone - corporate influence and conflicts of interest are rampant in the courts.

  • [, 2021-10-04] Is Chevron's Vendetta Against Steven Donziger Finally Backfiring?  A judge sentenced the human rights lawyer to six months in prison - but the calls for environmental justice are only growing.

  • [, 2021-10-01] A 'Two-by-Four Between the Eyes': Judge Sentences Anti-Chevron Crusader to Jail Time - Just Days After U.N. Group Called for His Release.

  • [, 2021-09-30] 'Appalled' UN Human Rights Experts Urge Immediate Release, Compensation for Steven Donziger.  The detained American attorney who won a judgment against Chevron in Ecuador is set to be sentenced for contempt of court charges in a case stemming from the oil giant's legal retaliation.  |  "The appropriate remedy would be to release Mr. Steven Donziger immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations."

  • [, 2021-08-17] This attorney took on Chevron. Then Chevron-linked judges and private prosecutors had him locked up. .  Steven Donziger's legal saga has demonstrated deep-rooted conflicts of interest in the judicial system when it comes to climate justice.

  • [, 2020-05-20] Judge Rules That Attorney Steven Donziger Must Remain Under House Arrest Until September 2020
  • [, 2020-05-18] Over 475 lawyers, legal organizations and human rights defenders support lawyer Steven Donziger
  • [, 2021-03-18] 'I've Been Targeted With Probably the Most Vicious Corporate Counterattack in American History.'  Steven Donziger has been under house arrest for over 580 days, awaiting trial on a misdemeanor charge. It's all, he says, because he beat a multinational energy corporation in court.  |  Discussion: Hacker News, 2022-07-28

  • [, 2020-02-24] He Sued Chevron and Won. Now He's Under House Arrest.  Chevron is using the U.S. courts to avoid paying out $9.5 billion for environmental damage -- And to silence lead lawyer Steven Donziger.
  • [, 2020-01-29] How the Environmental Lawyer Who Won a Massive Judgment Against Chevron Lost Everything

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