Claiming ExxonMobil Corp. was “running roughshod over the adage that the best defense is a good offense,” a U.S. District Court judge last week said a federal lawsuit may not be used to fight state investigations that question whether climate change statements made by the corporation amount to fraud.
In late 2016, ExxonMobil asked federal courts in Texas and New York to prevent state officials “from conducting duly-authorized investigations into potential fraud,” wrote U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni for the Southern District of New York in a 48-page ruling. “It has done so on the basis of extremely thin allegations and speculative inferences.”
The fiery 48-page opinion was issued by the Manhattan court late last Thursday regarding the ExxonMobil lawsuits filed against New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts AG Maura Healey (No. 17-CV-2301).
“In a wild stretch of logic, Exxon contends that the AGs’ ‘overtly political tone,’ and comments on public ‘confusion’ relative to climate change show that their intent is to chill dissenting speech,” Caproni wrote. ExxonMobil also has claimed that the AGs’ previous comments on climate change “demonstrate that they have prejudged the outcome of their investigations, presuming Exxon’s guilt from the get-go…”
Schneiderman issued a sweeping subpoena in November 2015, demanding ExxonMobil produce “essentially every document in the company's possession concerning global warming or climate change for a period of nearly 40 years.” Healey issued a separate subpoena in 2016. They were joined by more than a dozen AGs.
In 2016, ExxonMobil asked a Texas court and later a New York court to quash the subpoenas, claiming the AGs are part of a conspiracy fueled by "improper bias and unconstitutional objectives.”
Schneiderman "has publicly accused ExxonMobil of engaging in a 'massive securities fraud' without any basis whatsoever, and Attorney General Healey declared, before her investigation even began, that she knew how it would end: with a finding that ExxonMobil violated the law," the company stated in its motion two years ago.
Caproni was unswayed by the arguments. She said the relief sought by ExxonMobil is “on the basis of extremely thin allegations and speculative inferences...The factual allegations against the AGs boil down to statements made at a single press conference and a collection of meetings with climate-change activists.
“Some statements made at the press conference were perhaps hyperbolic, but nothing that was said can fairly be read to constitute declaration of a political vendetta against Exxon.”
Allegations that the AGs “are pursuing bad faith investigations in order to violate Exxon’s constitutional rights are implausible and therefore must be dismissed for failure to state a claim,” Caproni wrote.
Additionally, ExxonMobil’s separate lawsuit against Healey is precluded by res judicata, i.e. it has already been adjudicated by a competent court and may not be pursued further by the same parties.
“The legal jiu-jitsu necessary to pursue this strategy would be impressive had it not raised serious risks of federal meddling in state investigations and led to a sprawling litigation involving four different judges, at least three lawsuits, innumerable motions and a huge waste of the AGs’ time and money,” Caproni added in a footnote.
After the court opinion was published, Schneiderman said, “At every turn in our investigation, Exxon has tried to distract and deflect from the facts at hand. But we will not be deterred: our securities fraud investigation into Exxon continues.”