March 10, 2014
On Friday, March 7, 2014, the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles unanimously affirmed dismissal of a case against Gibson Dunn client Dole Food Company as a "fraud on the court" perpetrated by U.S. and Nicaraguan plaintiffs’ lawyers. The appeal affirmed a trial court ruling from the Honorable Victoria Chaney in Tellez v. Dole Food Company, Los Angeles Superior Court, Case No. BC312852, where Judge Chaney found that U.S. and Nicaraguan plaintiffs’ lawyers had "coached their clients to lie about working on banana farms, forged work certificates to create the appearance that their clients had worked on Dole-contracted farms, and faked lab results" as part of a scheme to obtain the judgment against Dole. In the 25-page appellate decision, captioned Rojas Laguna v. Dole Food Company, Case No. BC233497, the Court of Appeal found no "valid ground" to disturb Judge Chaney’s ruling "that plaintiffs and their counsel committed a fraud on the court by presenting false evidence and testimony."
Tellez originally went to trial in 2007 and resulted in a multi-million dollar verdict against Dole, in favor of Nicaraguan plaintiffs claiming injuries from pesticide exposure on Dole-contracted farms in the late 1970s. The U.S. and Nicaraguan plaintiffs’ lawyers handling the case pitched it as a watershed win for U.S. plaintiffs’ lawyers, who brought cases in the United States and Nicaragua and obtained billions in Nicaraguan judgments. It was meant to open the floodgates to additional verdicts and suits.
Friday’s decision from the Court of Appeal was the culmination of years of effort by Dole and Gibson Dunn to have the Tellez proceedings re-opened and dismissed for plaintiff fraud, based on a rarely used procedure known as a petition for writ of error coram vobis. Shortly after the Tellez judgment, Dole exposed evidence in the related case Mejia v. Dole Food Company, Los Angeles Superior Court, Case No. BC340049, showing that the Tellez claims resulted from what the court found to be a wide-reaching fraudulent scheme perpetrated by U.S. and Nicaraguan lawyers. Based on this evidence from Mejia–which, according to the trial court, showed a "heinous conspiracy" "to defraud th[e] court, to extort money from the defendants, and to defraud the defendants"–Dole successfully petitioned the Court of Appeal and the trial court to re-open the Tellez proceedings, after final judgment and while the case was pending appeal. This petition paved the way for a year-long evidentiary process, where, as the recent decision of the Court of Appeal recounts, Dole showed by clear and convincing evidence that the Tellez plaintiffs and their counsel perpetrated fraud on the court by:
"[i] recruiting persons who had never worked on banana farms as would be plaintiffs,
[ii] coaching plaintiffs to lie about their work on banana farms,
[iii] submitting false work certificates,
[iv] falsifying sterility by submitting fraudulent laboratory reports and concealing children fathered by plaintiffs, and
[v] interfering with witnesses and investigators by threats, intimidation, and tampering."
In affirming these findings, the Court of Appeal held that the Tellez plaintiffs "raise no sufficiency of the evidence challenge with regard to the relevant findings in this case that they too committed a fraud on the court by submitting false testimony, fraudulent declarations and work certificates, and fraudulent laboratory reports as part of the fraudulent scheme orchestrated by their attorneys." The Court also held that it was "within the exclusive province of the trial court" to determine the credibility of "John Doe" witnesses, who had testified under a protective order in Mejia, and that the use of a protective order "did not violate plaintiffs’ due process right to a fair trial" but instead "functioned as an adequate and appropriate safeguard to the integrity of the proceedings." Finally, the Court of Appeal held that Dole met the legal requirements for the "drastic remedy" of relief from a final judgment based on a petition of writ of error coram vobis.
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The decision in Rojas Laguna v. Dole Food Company represents a major victory for Dole. It is also a significant victory for the rule of law.
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s Transnational Litigation Practice Group lawyers are available to assist in addressing any questions you may have regarding these areas. Please contact any member of the Gibson Dunn team, the Gibson Dunn lawyer with whom you usually work, or the co-chairs of the firm’s Transnational Litigation Practice Group:
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Scott A. Edelman – Los Angeles (+1 310-557-8061, firstname.lastname@example.org)
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