Donziger Wins “Extraordinary” Victory Over Chevron In New York Federal Appeals Court

New York -- In a major rebuke to Chevron and controversial U.S. trial judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a New York appeals court today threw out a key contempt finding against human rights attorney Steven Donziger that had been used to fine him millions of dollars in court costs and led to criminal contempt charges that resulted in an unprecedented 19-month house arrest without trial. 

“This is an extraordinary legal victory that should lead to the enforcement of the environmental judgment against Chevron and the dismissal of the criminal contempt case against Steven Donziger,” said legendary New York civil rights attorney Martin Garbus, who represents Donziger. “This is also a victory for Indigenous peoples throughout the world against oil industry polluters.” 

Donziger, who helped his Ecuadorian clients win a historic $9.5 billion pollution judgment against Chevron that has been validated by mulitple appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada, said: “While the decision today is not everything we wanted, it agrees with me on my core claim: that my work over the last five years raising funds for the Ecuadorian communities to pursue enforcement of their judgment against Chevron was appropriate, despite Judge Kaplan trying to claim it was illegal. This is a huge blow to Chevron’s campaign to demonize me as a way to evade paying the Ecuador judgment which we expect to be fully enforced in due course.” 

In a majority decision written by Gerard E. Lynch, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found Donziger cannot be held in contempt of court for helping the affected Amazon communities in Ecuador raise funds to sustain their litigation against Chevron, which has been found liable in Ecuador (where Chevron insisted the trial be held) for deliberately dumping billions of gallons of cancer-causing oil waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands. 

The $9.5b judgment from Ecuador – where Chevron had accepted jurisdiction – is currently being prepared for enforcement against Chevron assets in multiple jurisdictions while the company has carried a litigation attack campaign focused on Donziger in New York, said Patricio Salazar, the Ecuadorian lawyer for the affected communities. 

The key part of today’s U.S. court decision, on pp. 43-44, reads as follows: 

“Given the district court’s interpretation of the Injunction, it was not unreasonable for someone in Donziger’s position to believe that he could continue monetizing his clients’ interests in the Ecuadorian Judgment and pay himself with those proceeds because, as the district court itself noted, that is how the case “always has been financed. But, five years after the district court issued the Stay Order, it found him in contempt for … doing exactly that.” 

See here for the full decision.

Garbus said the decision today calls into question the entire foundation of three years of brutal civil and criminal contempt proceedings authorized by Kaplan at Chevron’s request that targeted Donziger, several supporters of the case, and Donziger’s own family members. It also endorses the very first objection that Donziger made in early 2018 to Chevron’s request to hold him in contempt of court.  

Donziger has spent three years trying to get appellate review of Kaplan’s authorization of the Chevron discovery campaign to achieve the vindication he received today, said Garbus. During that time, Judge Kaplan took the unprecedented step of charging him with criminal contempt for challenging the very basis of Kaplan’s own order, which turned out at least in part to be unlawful. 

“Steven Donziger is a great champion of human rights,” said Garbus, who has represented Daniel Ellsberg, Cesar Chavez, and Nelson Mandela in a six-decade career. “The decision is additional proof that the Chevron-orchestrated criminal contempt case against Steven is a product of a corporate retaliation campaign designed to punish Steven and intimidate all who helped hold the company accountable for its ‘Amazon Chernobyl’ disaster in Ecuador.”  

Ron Kuby, Donziger’s other lawyer, also praised the decision and called for the dismissal of the criminal contempt case. 

“The decision today proves that the underlying order, which gave rise to the criminal contempt charges, was ambiguous, creating a contempt trap for Steven Donziger,” said Kuby. “The charges should be dismissed immediately so Steven can return to human rights work and get his life back.”  

The decision is also the second clear reversal of Judge Kaplan by the Second Circuit. In 2011, without even hearing any evidence, Kaplan tried to block any court in the world form enforcing the Ecuador judgment. That order was overturned the day after oral argument in a decision also written by Judge Lynch. 

“On two occasions now, the New York federal appellate court has reversed Judge Kaplan in decisions favoring Chevron,” said Garbus.  

A longtime resident of Manhattan and graduate of Harvard Law School, Donziger has received support from 55 Nobel laureates; 475 lawyers and bar associations around the world; and a slew of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Global Witness, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and many others. 


In March 2018, Kaplan authorized a three-year brutal campaign by Chevron of civil and criminal contempt actions targeting Donziger and his supporters that was intended to incapacitate his ability to continue to represent his clients in Ecuador. The campaign came after the Ecuadorians had recently won a unanimous decision from Canada’s Supreme Court allowing them to enforce their judgment. 

The criminal contempt case filed by Kaplan in July 2019 was rejected by the regular federal prosecutor, prompting the judge to appoint a private law firm (Seward & Kissel) to prosecute Donziger. At the time, neither Kaplan nor the Seward lawyers disclosed that Chevron had recently been a client of the firm and that several of its major clients had financial ties to the company.   

Donziger became the first person in U.S. history to be targeted in a corporate prosecution by an oil company, according to observers.