Cory Briggs, who has just lost his job as a city attorney in San Diego, has not received nearly $ 1 million in legal fees from a case against members of the California Coastal Commission.
The 4th district appeals court ruled last week that the nonprofits that Briggs represented had no legal standing. It overturned a lower court decision to impose civil penalties of $ 57,000 on five current and former coastal commissioners. The opinion does not address whether the commissioners have broken the law.
It is Briggs’ most recent loss after a court ruled that his clients had no legal standing.
In this case, his nonprofit client, Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, won the San Diego Supreme Court. A judge ruled that the commissioners did not disclose any ex parte communications – private conversations with people who had affairs in front of the agency. State law requires that these notices be published within seven days.
The nonprofit’s case was not against the agency that regulates the use of land and water along the state’s 1,100-mile-long coastal zone – an area larger than all of Rhode Island. Instead, Briggs argued in the 2016 lawsuit that the fines should be paid in person by commissioners, who vote on permits for construction projects, changes to public access, and even some maintenance, while overseeing an annual budget of $ 32 million.
After winning, Spotlight described its lawsuit as the first to “hold commissioners accountable” for violating communication rules. Legal fees of nearly $ 930,000 were granted, and Briggs later placed liens on the commissioners’ properties to guarantee payment.
However, a three-judge appeals court joined the commissioners and said Briggs’ client was not involved in two of his three claims. The court said Spotlight was entitled to sue under the third lawsuit, but the statute cited by the group did not apply to ex parte communications.
His ruling stated that the lawsuit never attempted to change Commission decisions, and Briggs quoted during the trial that “only a large fine will be enough”.
“This case has always been about fines – fines and legal fees,” said Judge Richard Huffman in the November 24 ruling.
Spotlight for Coastal Corruption fined the commissioners more than $ 22 million. Although the court agreed that the commissioners were breaking the law, it also found it difficult to “argue that their behavior puts a person or property at risk”.
The suit named Steve Kinsey, Erik Howell, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell and Mark Vargas as defendants. Only Howell is still on the job.
Briggs didn’t respond to a request for comment this week.
RELATED: Previous Inewsource coverage of Cory Briggs
In February, a judge also dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of the San Diego nonprofit for Open Government. He said the group had no authority to sue a former superintendent of the San Ysidro school district. Briggs appeals the verdict.
The group that Briggs frequently represents also lost last December when the state Supreme Court said it was unable to file a conflict of interest lawsuit against the city of San Diego over building debt in Petco Park.
When Briggs ran for city attorney that year and lost 33 points to incumbent Mara Elliott, he described himself as the taxpayer’s attorney.
Briggs is known to sue public agencies over environmental and disclosure laws. Research by inewsource on his legal efforts shows that he frequently helps form many of the nonprofits he later represents in court, stalling large projects, and collecting legal fees if he wins.
The groups have repeatedly violated state and federal laws. Briggs lost legal fees in 2016 for knowingly representing a nonprofit that was suspended by the state’s Franchise Tax Board at the time. This move was labeled “unethical and unprofessional conduct” by the appeals court in a statement also written by Huffman. ”
Many of the not-for-profit organizations affiliated with Briggs were non-compliant when he launched his campaign for city attorneys. Briggs previously told inewsource that he no longer represents the non-compliant groups.
Lawyers who have faced Briggs in court have questioned the legitimacy of his clients.
CREED-21, a not-for-profit brig that stood up against a Walmart development in Riverside County in 2017, was sanctioned after failing to comply with court orders to present one of its members for a deposit. Walmart’s attorneys named CREED-21 a “Shell Corporation” for Briggs’ law firm.
San Diego Tourism Marketing Attorneys made similar allegations in a 2012 case brought by Briggs against the agency on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government to challenge the renewal of a tax on hotel owners. The lawsuit was dismissed when the city got rid of the surcharge and Briggs lost its reputation after a new tax was restricted to large hotel owners.
Briggs law firm helped integrate Spotlight on Coastal Corruption in 2016. Kathryn Burton, a former assistant city attorney in San Diego, is listed as the group’s CEO, but has no employees and has never appeared at a Coastal Commission hearing.
Founding documents state that the nonprofit’s purpose is to “educate the public about their rights to transparent, accountable, and responsible government decisions on development projects in California’s coastal communities.” The group has a solid reputation with the California Secretary of State.
Representatives from the commission and the California attorney general declined to comment on the recent decision, citing pending litigation.
Briggs can now file a retry motion or request a review by the state Supreme Court. If he fails to do both, the case is sent back to the court where the commissioners can apply to Spotlight on Coastal Corruption for legal fees and expenses.
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