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Profits Before People: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Litigation Hall of Shame

In a previous piece, we wrote about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s very busy litigation practice, the issues the Chamber litigates most frequently, the government agencies it most often opposes, and the giant multinational corporations its litigation most often supports.

In a newly-released report, we examine a few dozen of the most egregious cases the Chamber has litigated. From financial crisis-related litigation to cases stemming from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill to Keystone XL to fracking to the Clean Power Plan to a case involving the Buckyball magnetic toy that injured over 1,700 children, the Chamber has been actively involved in some of the most notorious civil cases of recent years. Some of the lowlights of the Chamber’s litigation include:

  • Litigation related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Chamber filed an amicus brief on behalf of BP on 4 separate occasions, arguing for legal technicalities that would eliminate or reduce civil fines and penalties that government agencies sought to impose upon BP as well as obstruct class action litigation brought by small businesses against BP.
  • Litigation related to the Buckyball magnetic toy responsible for injuring thousands of children. The Chamber filed an amicus brief in support of the CEO of the company that sold Buckyballs, a toy that injured over 1,700 young children. It argued that he should not be personally liable for recall costs in spite of the fact that he had had ample warning of the danger posed by the toy and had indeed fought recall efforts, resulting in a delay that led to further sales—and further injuries.
  • Litigation related to for-profit Corinthian Colleges’ fraudulently misleading students. The Chamber filed an amicus brief in support of Corinthian Colleges’ effort to prevent former students from suing it in court for fraud despite the fact that Corinthian was already the subject of multiple investigations targeting similar conduct and had already settled a previous fraud case involving similar allegations.
  • Litigation related to the Keystone XL pipeline. The Chamber sided with the Canadian energy giant behind the pipeline over American ranchers and farmers who didn’t want the pipeline being routed through their land.
  • Fracking Litigation. The Chamber fought to strike down municipal zoning ordinances to prevent fracking.
  • The Clean Power Plan. The Chamber sued the EPA to block President Obama’s signature initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at power plants.
  • Minimum Wage Litigation. The Chamber fought to strike down Seattle’s law raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, claiming that it would be bad for workers.
  • GMO Labeling Litigation. The Chamber filed an amicus brief opposing Vermont’s GMO labeling law, arguing that it did not advance a legitimate state interest and impinged upon corporations’ free speech rights.
  • Alien Tort Statute Litigation. The Chamber filed amicus briefs in cases involving Nigerian and Papua New Guinean plaintiffs who alleged that foreign multinationals had been complicit in gross human rights abuses including rape, pillage, and aerial bombardment of civilians. In both cases, public protests against the industrial sites in question were brutally repressed by the government, allegedly at the behest of and assisted by the corporate defendants.
  • Walmart Gun Sales Litigation. The Chamber filed an amicus brief supporting Walmart’s effort to prevent shareholders from voting on a proxy resolution calling for the company’s board to examine its sale of high capacity firearms.
  • Labor Rights for Gig Economy Workers. The Chamber sued the city of Seattle to block its law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize.
  • Litigation against Goldman Sachs for fraudulently misleading investors. The Chamber filed an amicus brief supporting Goldman Sachs in its efforts to make it more difficult for defrauded investors including pension funds to sue as a result of huge losses they suffered during the financial crisis.

Taken as a whole, the Chamber’s legal filings show it to be attempting to advance an exceptionally dangerous agenda via the courts. This agenda includes:

  • Invalidating important regulations protecting workers, consumers, and the environment, including rules promoting clean air, clean water, greater information, and prudent banking practices. The Chamber’s opposition to regulation is almost blanket, even extending to cases where the rule at issue would correct obvious market failures.
  • Making it harder to hold corporations accountable. The Chamber seeks to make it more difficult for consumers and small businesses harmed by corporate malfeasance to go to court. It also argues for more limited corporate prosecutions and for smaller penalties. Finally, it argues against U.S. jurisdiction in cases where corporations are accused of human rights abuses overseas. The Chamber’s ultimate goal in these cases is the same: corporate accountability should be minimized and/or eliminated.
  • Putting profits before people. The Chamber takes a very robber baron view of business. Whether defending Wall Street speculation or Big Pharma price gouging or appalling fast food labor practices or new economy exploitation of gig economy workers, the Chamber is unconcerned with how dubious business practices harm workers and consumers.
  • Favoring Big Business over small businesses. While the Chamber claims to be the voice of small businesses in Washington, when it comes to its litigation practice, it can be relied upon to favor the giant multinational corporations that fund it. Whether it’s by arguing for reduced access to the courts, opposing stricter supervision of Wall Street banks designed to reduce the risk of future financial crises, fighting for Big Oil against emissions controls, or supporting Big Pharma’s schemes to keep drug prices sky high, the Chamber always comes down on the side of its deep-pocketed Big Business patrons, ignoring the impact on small businesses.

The Chamber’s use of the courts to advance its Big Business-friendly, anti-consumer, anti-worker, anti-environmental agenda is important in considering the future of the Supreme Court. Some of these cases reached the Supreme Court; others may yet reach the Supreme Court. Progressives should demand that any future justice recognize the tremendous importance of regulations that protect workers, consumers, and the environment and refuse to put profits before people as the Chamber so often argues our courts should do.