Massachusetts high court skeptical of defending Exxon in climate change lawsuit

Signage at an Exxon gas station in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Exxon argues Massachusetts attorney general seeks to silence opinions
  • Judges discuss whether anti-SLAPP law applies to state’s case

(Reuters) – The Massachusetts high court appeared to be inclined on Wednesday to reject Exxon Mobil Corp’s bid to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the state’s attorney general that accuses the oil company of misleading consumers and misleading investors about its role in climate change.

A trial judge last year denied Exxon’s request to dismiss Attorney General Maura Healey’s lawsuit on the grounds that it sought to silence her protected free speech, prompting the company to appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

Justin Anderson, Exxon’s attorney at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, said the judge erroneously concluded that Healey’s claims were not barred under state law protecting against Strategic Public Involvement Prosecutions (SLAPPs).

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“The idea that the government can be trusted never to take legal action against someone for disagreeing with their rhetoric goes against the fundamental principle of the 1st Amendment itself. even,” he said.

But Judge Dalila Argaez Wendlandt said she was “troubled” by Exxon’s arguments that a law aimed at preventing private litigants from using the court system to punish protected speech would also apply to Healey, the chief enforcer of state laws.

“Where do you think it makes sense to end enforcement action on behalf of the people of the Commonwealth against fraudulent activity using the anti-SLAPP statute?” she asked.

Judge Scott Kafker said Exxon’s use of an anti-SLAPP law that “should not be applied in this context” blocked depositions and discovery. Discovery is suspended until the court rules.

Healey, a Democrat, sued Exxon in 2019 following a three-year investigation, alleging it downplayed the impact of its fossil fuel products on climate change and the risks it posed to its company, with the aim of increasing its profits and its share price.

His case has progressed the farthest in the myriad of ongoing lawsuits by state and local governments seeking to hold energy companies accountable for climate change. The city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii, also survived recent motions to dismiss.

Most of those other cases in state court have been bogged down in wrangling over the companies’ offers to transfer them to federal court. Exxon in 2019 prevailed at trial in a case by New York.

Wednesday’s arguments marked the second time Healey’s office and Exxon have appeared in the state’s highest court. In 2018, he rejected Exxon’s offer to avoid complying with a so-called civil inquiry request, similar to a subpoena, during his investigation.

“We’ve been waiting so long to move this case forward,” Assistant Attorney General Seth Schofield said Wednesday.

The lawsuit seeks civil penalties and other relief.

The case is Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Exxon Mobil Corp, Massachusetts Supreme Court, No. SJC-13211.

For Massachusetts: Assistant Attorney General Seth Schofield

For Exxon: Justin Anderson of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison

Read more:

Exxon faces lawsuit in Massachusetts over climate change deception

Massachusetts accuses Exxon in climate change deception lawsuit

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Nathalie Raymond

Nate Raymond reports on federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at [email protected]

Teresa H. Sadler