Updated 5:26 p.m.
A federal judge today declined to hear a dispute between Patton Boggs and Chevron Corp. over whether the firm can continue to represent plaintiffs' interests in actions against the oil giant.
Patton Boggs filed suit against Chevron Corp. in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in November seeking a declaration that the law firm's work on behalf of Ecuadoran plaintiffs did not run afoul of professional conduct standards.
U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr., in his ruling (PDF), said the trial and appellate judges presiding over actions between Patton Boggs and Chevron are capable of determining whether there's a conflict of interest.
Kennedy called the litigation between Patton Boggs and Chevron “the latest chapter in a sprawling dispute” between the oil company and various parties in Ecuador that are suing over environmental damage. Chevron’s lawyers allege misconduct in the proceedings in Lago Agrio, Ecuador.
In the United States, Patton Boggs is advocating for the plaintiffs in pending, related civil actions in federal and appellate courts. Earlier coverage of the Chevron litigation involving Ecuador is here.
The dispute between Patton Boggs and Chevron in federal district court in Washington centers on the firm’s acquisition of the lobbying and consulting shop the Breaux Lott Leadership Group last July. The Breaux Lott Group—led by former U.S. Senators John Breaux and Trent Lott—had earlier advocated for Chevron in the dispute in Ecuador.
Kennedy said Chevron refused to waive any potential conflict of interest stemming from the law firm’s acquisition of the lobbying shop.
Last November, Patton Boggs made an appearance for the Ecuadoran plaintiffs in an action pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. Chevron’s lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher told Patton Boggs that its appearance “constitutes a conflict of interest that could result in disqualification.”
That same month, Patton Boggs filed court papers in Washington federal district court in an attempt to get a declaration that its plaintiffs’ work did not pose a conflict. Chevron’s lawyers urged Kennedy to dismiss the civil action, saying Washington federal district court is not the right venue and that the dispute is not “ripe.”
Kennedy said today in his ruling that whether Chevron’s letter to Patton Boggs marks a credible threat of litigation is a “close question.” The letter, the judge said, “does not support the relief that Patton Boggs requests here.”
The propriety of Patton Boggs’ involvement in litigation against Chevron in federal district and appellate courts is governed by the professional conduct rules of the jurisdictions in which the cases are pending, Kennedy said.
The judge said he would have to examine the law in every jurisdiction—potentially every state—in which Chevron might seek to disqualify Patton Boggs. “This fact is fatal to Patton Boggs’ argument that its suit is ripe,” Kennedy said.
Federal judges who are presiding over cases featuring Patton Boggs and Chevron’s lawyers “are perfectly capable” of resolving the firm’s ethical dilemma, Kennedy said today.
“For this Court to inform all other federal courts that Patton Boggs is qualified to represent the Lago Agrio plaintiffs before those courts would be incredibly intrusive,” Kennedy said.
Patton Boggs partner Charles Talisman in Washington, who serves as the firm's general counsel, was not immediately reached for comment this afternoon on Kennedy's decision.
The Gibson team representing Chevron in the Washington action included partners Thomas Hungar and Theodore Boutrous Jr. Hungar and Boutrous serve as co-chairs of the firm's appellate and constitutional law practice group.
"We are pleased that the district court so swiftly dismissed this frivolous and misguided lawsuit," Boutrous said. "As the court found, in bringing these claims, 'Patton Boggs misunderstands the law.'"
Patton Boggs partner James Tyrrell, Jr. managing partner of the firm's New York and New Jersey offices, said in a statement this evening: “We are disappointed with the Court’s conclusion that Chevron’s threat to disqualify Patton Boggs from its representation of the Ecuadorian plaintiffs is not ripe for judicial resolution in the District of Columbia."
Tyrrell said the firm "acted promptly to resolve this question in a single forum where the lobbying work had been performed rather than in the multiple federal courts in which Chevron initiated discovery proceedings."