NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) -- The federal judge overseeing a fraud lawsuit filed by Chevron Corp. has decided to deny the defendants in the case a jury trial.
The trial is set to begin Oct. 15.
Now, instead of pleading their case in front of a jury, New York attorney Steven Donziger and the Ecuadorians must do so before Judge Lewis Kaplan for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
In his seven-page memorandum opinion Monday, Kaplan declined to order a jury trial in the case.
Last week, Chevron said it would drop money damages claims against Donziger if Kaplan tried the case. The oil giant already said it would drop money damages claims against the two Ecuadorians, Hugo Gerardo Camacho Naranjo and Javier Piaguaje Payaguaje.
Donziger and the Ecuadorians argued they are entitled to a jury as a matter of fairness.
"But that argument -- even if it had merit, which it does not -- is beside the point," Kaplan wrote. "Insofar as is relevant to this case, the availability of trial by jury depends on one thing alone -- whether the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution requires it."
It does not, the judge said.
Kaplan explained that when a party -- in this case, Chevron -- withdraws its damages claims and pursues only equitable relief, a jury trial is no longer available and issues must be tried by the court.
"In such circumstances, trial by jury is available only if the parties and the trial judge all agree to it," he explained further. "Under the plain language of Rule 39(c)(1), the trial court may not otherwise permit trial by jury even if some of the parties would prefer to obtain a jury verdict.
"As the parties do not all agree to trial by jury, the court lacks the power to grant a jury trial."
Chris Gowen, of Washington, D.C.-based The Gowen Group Law Office PLLC and who is advising Donziger, Camacho and Piaguaje, said Monday Kaplan's last-minute decision is "a clear abuse of power" and again shows Chevron doesn't believe in its own case.
"This critical decision made only days before trial virtually guarantees Chevron its desired outcome from a judge who already has decided all key issues in the case before evidence has been presented," Gowen said in a statement.
"While Mr. Donziger and his clients will continue to fight to make a proper record for the court of appeals, there is simply no way they can get a fair trial before Judge Kaplan."
He continued, "This decision also guarantees that Judge Kaplan's expected finding of 'liability' against Mr. Donziger and the Ecuadorians will have no legitimacy in courts around the world who ultimately will determine whether Chevron pays the Ecuador judgment."
Chevron, which has vowed never to pay a $19 billion judgment against it, filed a racketeering lawsuit in the federal court in 2011, alleging that the Ecuador suit has been used to threaten the oil company, mislead U.S. government officials, and harass and intimidate its employees -- all to extort a financial settlement from the company.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.