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Massachusetts AG Ready to File Climate Case Against Exxon (1)

Oct. 18, 2019, 2:02 AMUpdated: Oct. 18, 2019, 8:45 PM

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is poised to sue Exxon Mobil Corp. for allegedly deceiving consumers about the climate-warming impacts of fossil fuels.

According to documents obtained by Bloomberg Environment Oct. 17, the Democratic state lawyer on Oct. 10 notified Exxon that her office was ready to move forward with litigation it has threatened for more than three years.

Exxon is accusing Healey of attempting to distract the company while it’s getting ready for a separate climate-related trial in New York, which begins Oct. 22.

“The timing of the Attorney General’s threat is no coincidence,” company lawyers told a state court on Oct. 17, calling it “an intentional and cynically transparent ploy to distract ExxonMobil from its trial preparations” and get media attention.

The Oct. 10 letter to Exxon says Healey’s office “has reason to believe” the company violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act by “engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in the market and sale of fossil fuel products and Exxon securities. Healey’s office later called Exxon’s bid to delay legal action “absurd.”

The letter concludes that Healey “intends to commence an action against ExxonMobil,” and that the company’s lawyers can reach out to her office if they want to try to resolve claims before Healey files suit.

Pushback from Exxon

Exxon lawyers responded to Healey’s office Oct. 14 expressing frustration with the timing of the lawsuit threat.

They noted that the company hasn’t yet handed over any documents or made employees available for interviews with Healey’s team of lawyers, thanks to a 2016 agreement that paused Healey’s pursuit of company records while related cases challenging the investigation were pending.

“It appears your office has decided to charge the company without any consideration or concern for the underlying facts,” Exxon lawyer Theodore V. Wells Jr., from the firm Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP, told Healey’s office.

Richard A. Johnston, chief legal counsel in Healey’s office, responded Oct. 15 that “our office has continued its investigation through numerous other avenues and has sufficient grounds for the Commonwealth’s complaint.”

Exxon is asking the Superior Court of Suffolk County to force Healey’s team to slow down.

Under state rules, the company is entitled to meet with the attorney general’s office before a lawsuit is filed. Johnston pushed Exxon lawyers to meet Oct. 16 or Oct. 17.

Exxon wants the state court to require Healey to give the company until mid-November—when the New York trial is expected to conclude—to confer about the lawsuit threat.

The New York case focuses on that state’s allegations that Exxon misled investors about the company’s financial risks from climate change. The trial starts Oct. 22 and is expected to last three weeks.

Healey’s office responded Oct. 18 to Exxon’s bid to delay legal action, calling it “absurd” and “blatantly obstructionist.”

“The Emergency Motion seeks unprecedented relief without legal basis and should be denied,” lawyers for her office told the state court.

The parties are set to discuss the issue in a hearing Oct. 24.

The Suffolk County case is Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Office of Attorney General, Mass. Super. Ct., No. 1684CV01888.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com