Judge sanctions Paul, Weiss and would-be SEC enforcer Alex Oh in Exxon case

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Signage is seen outside of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 30, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Oh was the SEC's enforcement head for less than a week, resigning after a judge said she was mulling sanctions against her.
  • Judge finds Oh and Paul, Weiss made unsubstantiated claims against opposing counsel while defending Exxon.

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday sanctioned Alex Oh, who briefly led the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement division before resigning last month, and her former law firm over their conduct in a long-running international human rights case against Exxon Mobil Corp.

The looming threat of sanctions against Oh in the case was widely seen as precipitating her abrupt exit from the SEC, less than a week into her tenure as director of enforcement.

In his Wednesday order, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth admonished Oh and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison for calling opposing counsel in the Exxon case "unhinged" and "agitated and combative" without evidence during a February 2021 deposition.

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"Ms. Oh has sincerely apologized for her conduct; Paul Weiss has also apologized. Both should have known better than to impugn another attorney's character without reviewing the entire record. And neither should have made those accusations without evidentiary support," the judge wrote. "The Court cannot allow such misconduct to occur without at least rebuking counsel."

Lamberth said Oh and Paul, Weiss violated Rule ll(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure but declined to refer them to the disciplinary authorities. He said monetary sanctions are unavailable, as the court already told Exxon's legal team to pay opposing counsel's expenses incurred in litigating the sanctions matter.

Oh's lawyer, Geoffrey Klineberg of Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, and a representative for Paul, Weiss did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Nor did Kit Pierson, the Cohen Milstein partner whom Oh and Paul, Weiss are accused of maligning.

The sanctions stem from a case in Washington, D.C., federal court in which Paul, Weiss is defending Exxon against allegations under the Alien Tort Statute that it supported murder and torture in Indonesia, allegations it has denied.

Oh, who worked at Paul, Weiss for 17 years, withdrew from the case on April 22 to join the SEC, court records show.

On April 26, Lamberth raised questions over Oh's conduct during the deposition of a witness in the Exxon case and said in a filing that he was considering sanctions against her.

Two days later Oh resigned from the SEC, citing a development in one of her previous cases that would be "an unwelcome distraction to the important work of the Division."

Oh and Paul, Weiss asked the court to refrain from imposing sanctions in a separate filings Friday.

The firm said in its filing that while it regrets using such "sharp and pointed language" to describe opposing counsel, its team had "genuinely believed that its descriptions fairly captured the tense and occasionally personal nature of the exchanges between opposing counsel, the first-hand experience of which was not entirely captured by the video the Court reviewed."

In her own filing, Oh said she regretted her language choice and "role in the breakdown of civility," but she believed in good faith that her approach to the deposition was appropriate and that her characterizations of opposing counsel's demeanor were fair.

"I appreciate the Court’s criticism," Oh said in the filing. "I have faced the consequences of my actions, and I will undertake to do better in the future."

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Caroline Spiezio covers legal industry news, with a focus on law firms and in-house counsel. She is based in New York. Reach her at Caroline.Spiezio@thomsonreuters.com.