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Patton Boggs, Llp v. Chevron Corporation

July 8, 2011

PATTON BOGGS, LLP, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHEVRON CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On April 19, 2011, the Court dismissed this action, ruling that issuing a declaratory judgment regarding plaintiff Patton Boggs, LLP's ethical obligations in various other federal proceedings would be improper, and that Patton Boggs could not amend its complaint to add tort claims against defendant Chevron and its counsel, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP. See Patton Boggs, LLP v. Chevron Corp., 2011 WL 1474866 (D.D.C. Apr. 19, 2011). Before the Court is Patton Boggs's motion for reconsideration [#37], which argues that the Court erred in several respects and asks the Court to reinstate this action and allow Patton Boggs to amend its complaint to add new tort claims. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the Court concludes that the motion must be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

In the interests of brevity, the Court will not retread all of the events that gave rise to this action, which are summarized in the Court's prior opinion and elsewhere. See Patton Boggs, 2011 WL 1474866, at *1--2; Chevron Corp. v. Steven Donziger, 2011 WL 778052, at *3--25 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 7, 2011) (chronicling the underlying environmental dispute and litigation). In brief, Patton Boggs represents numerous parties in Ecuador ("the Lago Agrio plaintiffs") who are engaged in litigation with Chevron, both in Ecuador and in the United States. Patton Boggs owns the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, a lobbying organization that previously worked for Chevron on related issues. Patton Boggs filed this action in November 2010, seeking a declaratory judgment that its ownership of the Breaux Lott Group did not create a conflict of interest that would prevent it from representing parties adverse to Chevron. Chevron moved to dismiss Patton Boggs's claims on multiple grounds. Patton Boggs responded by moving to strike Chevron's motion to dismiss and seeking leave to amend its complaint to add claims of tortious interference against Chevron and Gibson Dunn.

On April 19, 2011, the Court issued a memorandum opinion and a judgment dismissing the case in its entirety. The Court first denied Patton Boggs's motion for leave to amend its complaint, explaining that because Patton Boggs did not allege any facts suggesting that Chevron and Gibson Dunn's conduct had caused an actual breach of Patton Boggs's contract with the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, it had failed to state a claim of tortious interference under District of Columbia law. See Patton Boggs, 2011 WL 1474866, at *2--4. The Court assumed that District law applied because both parties did so, and "courts need not address choice of law questions sua sponte." In re Korean Air Lines Disaster of Sept. 1, 1983, 932 F.2d 1475, 1495 (D.C. Cir. 1991).*fn1

The Court then granted Chevron's motion to dismiss Patton Boggs's declaratory judgment claim.*fn2 The Court concluded that Patton Boggs's requested remedy - a declaratory judgment that "the Breaux Lott Leadership Group's prior non-legal work for Chevron does not provide a basis for disqualifying Patton Boggs from representing the Ecuadorian Plaintiffs," Compl. at 10 (prayer for relief) - went well beyond any justiciable controversy created by Chevron's alleged threat to seek Patton Boggs's disqualification from the actions that Chevron had initiated under 28 U.S.C. § 1782 (which authorizes district courts to issue orders permitting discovery for use in foreign proceedings). See Patton Boggs, 2011 WL 1474866, at *5--6. Further, the Court concluded that, insofar as the action was ripe for adjudication, abstention under the Declaratory Judgment Act was appropriate, because the question of Patton Boggs's ability to appear in Chevron's various collateral proceedings was one better settled by the courts presiding over those cases. See Patton Boggs, 2011 WL 1474866, at *7. The Court noted that for it "to inform all other federal courts that Patton Boggs is qualified to represent the Lago Agrio plaintiffs before those courts would be incredibly intrusive." Id.

On April 27, 2011, Patton Boggs moved for reconsideration of the Court's decision to dismiss the case, and sought leave to amend its complaint to add new claims. Simultaneously, it filed a new action in this Court, apparently presenting claims identical to those that it seeks permission to reinstate or add here. See Patton Boggs, LLP v. Chevron Corp., No. 11-0799 (D.D.C. filed Apr. 27, 2011).

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Patton Boggs suggests that the Court treat its motion for reconsideration as being made under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), which allows the Court to "relieve a party . . . from a final judgment, order, or proceeding" for certain reasons. FED. R. CIV. P. 60(b). Patton Boggs acknowledges, however, that the Court might conclude that Rule 59(e), which allows a party to file a motion "to alter or amend a judgment" within 28 days thereof, FED. R. CIV. P. 59(e), supplies the appropriate standard. See Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Recons. ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 1. Because Patton Boggs's motion for reconsideration "calls into question the correctness of [the Court's] judgment" and was filed within Rule 59(e)'s time limit, the Court construes it as being made pursuant to that provision. See MLC Automotive, LLC v. Town of Southern Pines, 532 F.3d 269, 277 (4th Cir. 2008); Johnson v. Penn Camera Exch., 583 F. Supp. 2d 81, 84--85 (D.D.C. 2008); Turner v. Dep't of Interior, 2007 WL 2982722, at *1 (D.D.C. Oct. 12, 2007) (citing Derrington-Bey v. D.C. Dep't of Corr., 39 F.3d 1224, 1225--27 (D.C. Cir. 1994)). Thus, Patton Boggs's motion "need not be granted unless the district court finds that there is an intervening change of controlling law, the availability of new evidence, or the need to correct clear error or manifest injustice." Anyanwutaku v. Moore, 151 F.3d 1053, 1057 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (quoting Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d 1205, 1208 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (per curiam)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Rule 59(e) "does not provide a vehicle for a party to undo its own procedural failures, and it certainly does not allow a party to introduce new evidence or advance arguments that could and should have been presented to the district court prior to the judgment." Moro v. Shell Oil Co., 91 F.3d 872, 876 (7th Cir. 1996); accord Carter v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 503 F.3d 143, 145 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

III. ANALYSIS

A. Abstention under the Declaratory Judgment Act

Patton Boggs first contends that the Court erred by declining to issue a declaratory judgment resolving its ethical obligations vis-a-vis Chevron and the Lago Agrio litigation. It argues that the Court appeared to overlook two salient facts: first, that any court deciding whether a conflict precludes Patton Boggs from appearing opposite Chevron would turn on a threshold question of District of Columbia law, which this Court is ideally suited to resolve; and second, that one of Chevron's § 1782 actions is proceeding in this district. These arguments are unpersuasive.

In granting Chevron's motion to dismiss, the Court explained that because the declaratory judgment sought by Patton Boggs - that it could represent the Lago Agrio plaintiffs - was without geographical or jurisdictional limitation, Patton Boggs was effectively asking the Court "to decipher and apply the law of every jurisdiction where Chevron might seek Patton Boggs's disqualification." See Patton Boggs, 2011 WL 1474866, at *6. In so concluding, the Court rejected Patton Boggs's argument that, because the Breaux Lott Group's lobbying for Chevron took place in the District, District law would govern any disqualification motion based on a putative conflict caused by that lobbying activity. See id.

Patton Boggs now contends that the Court erred by overlooking the "fact" that a court in another jurisdiction, before applying its own ethical rules, would have to determine whether the Breaux Lott Group's lobbying services for Chevron were legal in nature, a question that, Patton Boggs avers, is governed by District of Columbia law. See Pl.'s Mem. at 3. To begin with, this argument - like Patton Boggs's original contention that District law would govern any disqualification motion based on the Breaux Lott Group's lobbying - is wholly unsupported. Indeed, this assertion appears directly contrary to the Court's prior holding that "the propriety of Patton Boggs's participation in Chevron's various § 1782 proceedings . . . is governed by the respective rules of the jurisdictions where those cases are pending." Patton Boggs, 2011 WL 1474866, at *6.*fn3 But more importantly, this proposition - even if true - is simply irrelevant to the Court's bottom-line determination that it would overreach by adjudicating the propriety of ...

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