NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) -- A federal judge has denied a request by New York attorney Steven Donziger for a trial stay in a fraud case filed by Chevron Corp. against him and two Ecuadorian rainforest residents.
Judge Lewis Kaplan for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York wrote in a 12-page memorandum and order Tuesday that the motion for a three-month stay of the trial is a "radical shift" in position by Donziger.
"In ordinary circumstances, some delay to permit a litigant whose counsel suddenly had withdrawn to secure new counsel usually would be granted," Kaplan wrote. "But the withdrawal of the Keker firm was not sudden, and there is nothing ordinary about these circumstances."
Donziger filed a motion in June asking Kaplan to grant a three-month stay to prevent the case from "devolving into a mockery of justice and due process."
"The breakneck pace of Chevron's continued legal onslaught since withdrawal of my former counsel is severely prejudicing my ability to defend myself," he wrote in his motion, originally filed June 1.
In May, Kaplan allowed the law firms defending Donziger, Javier Piaguaje and Hugo Camacho to withdraw from the fraud case, filed by the oil giant in the New York federal court in 2011.
Lead attorneys John Keker of San Francisco-based Keker & Van Nest and Craig Smyser of Houston-based Smyser Kaplan & Veselka argued that the judge's ongoing bias in the case and Chevron's litigation tactics have made it impossible for their clients to pay their legal bills.
Keker, who also was the attorney for prominent Mississippi attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs during two judicial bribery cases, was representing Donziger in the case.
Without the requested three-month stay, Donziger argued he will not be prepared for trial, his interests will be "severely prejudiced," and he fears "manifest injustice" will result.
"I remind the court that Chevron is seeking treble damages against me on the $19 billion underlying judgment from the courts of Ecuador. The potential liability against me in this case,
if it were to be realized, would be devastating to me and my family," he said. "Even without a finding of liability, the legal fees in defending against this lawsuit -- for which I am liable personally -- threaten to bankrupt me."
Kaplan said Donziger should've known that Keker's withdrawal was possible, given that he hadn't been paid since September.
"He had ample time in which to find substitute counsel before the Keker firm sought to withdraw and has had six weeks in which to do so since it filed the motion," the judge wrote.
A delay is not likely to change Donziger's circumstances, Kaplan noted.
"Mr. Donziger has offered no reason to be any more optimistic now about his ability to engage substitute counsel if they were given a three-month stay than he was when he discussed the motion to withdraw with Mr. Keker," the judge wrote.
In a statement, Chevron said it is "pleased" that the court rejected Donziger's latest attempt to delay the case.
"We look forward to detailing the extent of fraud and misconduct carried out by the plaintiffs and their U.S.-based lawyers at trial in October," spokesman Morgan Crinklaw said Wednesday.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.