[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Mass. high court supports AG in climate change investigation of Exxon Mobil

I'm not a civ pro cognoscente, but a ruling of the Massachusetts high court on long-arm jurisdiction today caught my attention because it relates to the effort to hold Big Oil accountable for climate change.  The case is Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Attorney General, No. SJC-12376 (Mass. Apr. 13, 2018).

Mass. A.G. Maura Healey
(Edahlpr CC BY-SA 4.0)
Since 2016, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has been investigating Exxon Mobil Corp. under the state consumer protection law--the same Mass. Gen. L. chapter 93A that powerfully enhances conventional civil actions in tort in the commonwealth.  The AG tracks the investigation blow by blow online.  The AG opened the investigation after the 2015 revelation that Exxon might have known about the risk of climate change as early as the 1970s, as reported by Scientific American.

As part of the investigation, "the Attorney General issued a civil investigative demand (C.I.D.) to Exxon, seeking documents and information relating to Exxon's knowledge of and activities related to climate change."  Exxon resisted the CID on personal jurisdiction grounds.  Exxon simultaneously sought declaratory relief in federal court in Texas (No. 4:16-CV-469).  A year ago the case was transferred to New York (No. 1:17-cv-02301), and two weeks ago, Healy prevailed (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2018).  Exxon is incorporated in New Jersey and headquartered in Texas.

The analysis for specific personal jurisdiction in an investigation is not the same as in a lawsuit, the court explained.  Exxon denied "suit-related" activity in Massachusetts.  But "the investigatory context requires that we broaden our analysis," the court wrote, to consider the scope of investigation regardless of whether any wrongdoing has yet been uncovered.

Exxon franchise in Durham, N.C.
(Ildar Sagdejev CC BY-SA 4.0)
"The Attorney General's investigation concerns climate change caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions--a distinctly modern threat that grows more serious with time, and the effects of which are already being felt in Massachusetts."  More than 300 Exxon and Mobil franchises operate in Massachusetts.  Considering the corporation's close supervision of franchisees, the fuel stations "represent[] Exxon's 'purposeful and successful solicitation of business from residents of the Commonwealth.'"  The franchise agreements moreover require Exxon sign-off of advertising, so the court rejected Exxon's efforts to distance the corporation from consumer sales.

The Exxon investigation in Massachusetts unfolds against a backdrop of burgeoning legal attacks across the country.  The much-watched Juliana v. United States (Children's Trust) persists in the District of Oregon upon a favorable ruling in the Ninth Circuit in March (884 F.3d 830).  If state attorneys general make any headway under consumer protection law, I hope that any settlement serves more clearly to remedy climate change than the tobacco master settlement agreement has served to combat smoking-related health effects (see, e.g., Jones & Silvestri, 2010).

In re United States, 884 F.3d 830 (9th Cir. 2018)
884 F.3d 830

In re United States, 884 F.3d 830 (9th Cir. 2018)

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