In a news dump the day before Thanksgiving, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland appeared to drop the plaintiffs’ attorney firm representing them in their lawsuits against energy companies and replaced them with the rival law firm of Sher Edling. The decision comes after multiple losses in federal court for the litigation team that helped the cities bring these suits.
Pawa’s Losing Streak Continues
Prior to last week’s filing, San Francisco and Oakland had been represented by Matt Pawa and Steve Berman of Hagens Berman. The switch represents the latest in a series of defeats for Matt Pawa, who has doggedly sought to force energy companies to pay for the alleged damages of climate change for over a decade. In 2008, he led a lawsuit on behalf of the village of Kivalina, Alaska, suing energy companies for flooding caused by climate change. The case was ultimately dismissed, with the U.S. District Court ruling that the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions was a political question that needed to be decided by the legislative and executive branches, not the courts.
Pawa was still advocating for similar lawsuits when he met with a group of like-minded activists at a conference in La Jolla, California, in 2012. There the attendees strategized over how to replicate the success of the litigation campaign against Big Tobacco, with the energy industry as their new target. By 2015, Pawa had devised a new plan for suing energy companies in California to hold them liable for the costs associated with climate change, a strategy he laid out in a secret memo to billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer.
Meanwhile, Pawa was also meeting with Democratic state attorneys general in hopes of persuading them to launch investigations into ExxonMobil. After making his case to at least 17 AGs or their staff, Pawa was ultimately only able to convince the AGs of New York, Massachusetts, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to open investigations, though the U.S. Virgin Islands dropped their investigation within months.
More recently, Pawa succeeded in convincing San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, and King County, Washington to file lawsuits against energy companies along the same lines as what he laid out in his 2015 memo to Steyer. The cases brought by San Francisco, Oakland, and New York City were all quickly dismissed by federal judges earlier this year, and now San Francisco and Oakland have decided to switch firms for their appeal. And unlike their rivals at Sher Edling, Pawa and Hagens Berman have failed to sign any new litigants since May.
Sher Edling Actively Seeking New Clients
Sher Edling has been busy expanding its client list. They have succeeded where Pawa failed, convincing the Rhode Island Attorney General to file a lawsuit against the energy industry and exploiting their ties with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations to file a climate liability complaint on behalf of crab fishermen.
The Washington Free Beacon recently published emails showing Sher Edling pitched San Francisco on filing a climate lawsuit in the summer of 2017, just before the city ultimately signed up with Pawa and Hagens Berman. Last week’s change of counsel may indicate that Sher Edling continued to press San Francisco to sign with them as part of an aggressive strategy to acquire more plaintiffs.
Sher Edling No Sure Bet
Though Sher Edling has succeeded in convincing a handful of municipalities to join its cause, the lawsuits it has filed are anything but a sure bet. All of their cases are still in the pre-trial phase, with multiple judges deliberating on the appropriate jurisdiction. If the courts decide that global warming is beyond the scope of a state court, Sher Edling’s lawsuits will likely be dismissed as quickly as Pawa’s.