(CN) - Counsel for Ecuadoreans defending a $19 billion judgment for a massive oil spill in the Amazon should try to resolve their discovery dispute with Chevron before taking the matter to court, a federal judge ruled.
Chevron has litigated in three continents to invalidate a verdict awarding Ecuadorean aborigines and farmers billions for environmental and health damages in a region home to 30,000 people.
Recently, the oil giant demanded user data from more than 70 email accounts in the Northern District of California, home to Silicon Valley-based companies Yahoo and Google.
Digital civil liberties watchdogs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, assailed the move for violating the privacy rights of Chevron's critics, including lawyers, activists and journalists.
Joining up with Earthrights International, the EFF submitted a 34-page amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief supporting the Ecuadoreans' motion to quash.
A day later, U.S. District Judge Nathanael Cousins denied the motion, for now, urging the parties to resolve the issues themselves before involving the court.
"Civil Local Rule 37-1(a) provides that the court will not entertain a motion to resolve a discovery dispute unless counsel have previously conferred for the purpose of attempting to resolve all disputed issues," Cousins began his 4-page order. "In this matter, the court has reviewed the motions to quash subpoenas ... and finds that as to each of the motions, there is no evidence presented that counsel conferred for the purpose of resolving the disputes before filing the motions."
He gave the parties 14 days to resolve the subpoenas before he hears the dispute.
Chevron spokesman Justin Higgs told Courthouse News that the ruling was expected.
"Court after court has required email service providers to produce this exact type of information in other cases, and has rejected the claims that doing so implicates privacy or First Amendment rights," Higgs said in an email. "These subpoenas will identify the owners of the accounts, show how they were used to hide the transfer of documents among the co-conspirators, and provide records proving the plaintiffs' lawyers' and affiliates' activities were in furtherance of fraud."
Karen Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Ecuadoreans, said the judge's speedy response to this discovery request contrasts his handling of a different discovery matter on his docket.
Lawyers for the Ecuadoreans also asked Cousins to order the exposure of information about two men who secretly taped a judge in the Amazon.
Hinton says that the judge has been "sitting" on motions against the cameramen, former Chevron contractor Diego Borja and convicted drug trafficker Wayne Hansen, more than a year ago, without getting a ruling.
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