The state court of appeal has denied local attorney Cory Briggs more than $258,000 in fees he sought against the city of San Diego, citing “unethical, unprofessional, or even illegal conduct…”
In a published opinion Thursday, three justices of the 4th District Court of Appeal said Briggs knowingly represented a suspended corporation in a lawsuit challenging a new San Diego tax to finance an expansion of the downtown convention center, but didn’t acknowledge it and then didn’t give a reasons for his actions. Publication of the opinion means it can be cited as legal precedent.
“We determine that attorney fees cannot be awarded to a party whose attorney violates the law to appear in the action and offers no justification whatsoever for his or her conduct,” Justice Richard Huffman wrote. “To require taxpayers to compensate a party or a law firm for unethical, unprofessional, or even illegal conduct, under the guise that the litigant is protecting the public interest, would turn the private attorney general statute on its head.”
In short, the court found Briggs and his law firm — Briggs Law Corp. (BLC) — broke the law when they entered into lawsuits on behalf of a corporation, San Diegans for Open Government, they knew to be under state suspension at the time.
“In light of this clearly unethical and possibly criminal conduct, we expect some explanation of BLC’s actions. BLC provides none,” Huffman wrote. He was joined in the decision by Justices Gilbert Nares and Judith Haller.
Briggs responded by email to an inewsource request for comment. In it, he wrote:
“Our local appellate court is comprised of smart, well-respected jurists who almost always gets (sic) it right, but occasionally courts make a mistake. This is one of those occasions. Courts have a process for correcting mistakes, which SDOG will be following.”
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith declined to comment on this story.
inewsource reached out to San Diego attorney Paul Dostart, who is fluent in nonprofit, corporate organization and tax dispute law. After reading the appellate court’s opinion, he wrote in an email:
“Courts are given broad latitude to choose the words they use in their opinions. Even so, because ethical conduct is core to the role of a lawyer, it is extremely rare for any attorney – especially one who has been elevated to the bench and whose published opinions will become a permanent part of California jurisprudence – to suggest that an identified attorney has engaged in unethical or unlawful conduct.
“That three judges sitting as a court of appeal did so unanimously,” Dostart continued, “is extraordinary.”
inewsource also reached out to Edward McIntyre, an attorney and expert on legal ethics. He called Briggs’ actions, as described by the court of appeal, “playing with ethical fire.”
Lawyers who have practiced for some years know the difference between a suspended corporation and one in good standing, he said. “And if you don’t know all of the particulars, there’s obviously a very easy place to find out. You could probably Google it and find the answer. ‘California.’ ‘Suspended.’ ‘Corporation.’”
A quick recap
The appellate court opinion has its roots in a November 2011 San Diego City Council decision to create a special district to levy a tax to finance the expansion of the San Diego Convention Center. The City Attorney’s Office, in what’s known as a validation action, then asked a judge to find that the city had complied with the law when it established this new district and invited anyone opposed to sue.
In July 2012, Briggs — on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government (SDOG) — accepted the invitation and filed suit, challenging the new tax, as did local activist Melvin Shapiro.
The Superior Court ruled in favor of the city, but on appeal, Briggs and Shapiro won. Briggs asked for attorneys fees in December 2014 in the amount $862,000. However, the city raised the issue that Briggs’ client — SDOG — was suspended by the California Franchise Tax Board and Briggs knew it when he filed the lawsuit. Later, a paralegal at Briggs Law Corp. filed paperwork to have the corporation reinstated.
Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack warned Briggs at the time that he could be in trouble with the California State Bar or the authorities, but in the end awarded SDOG $258,629 in attorney fees. The city appealed and won on Thursday.
In the appellate opinion, Huffman wrote that instead of accepting responsibility for his actions, Briggs “blames the City for failing to discover earlier that SDOG was a suspended corporation….”
“Such blame shifting and obfuscation does not carry the day,” he wrote.
Full disclosure: San Diegans for Open Government sued inewsource and its media partner, KPBS, but lost in Superior Court. The case is on appeal. For more than two years, inewsource has been investigating Briggs and the dozens of nonprofits he is affiliated with.
Briggs is a well-known San Diego environmental and public-interest lawyer who has made a name for himself suing government agencies and developers under the California Environmental Quality Act. inewsource reporters combed through thousands of pages of land records, environmental impact reports, invoices and contracts and found highly questionable transactions, potential conflicts of interest and a persistent disregard for state and federal laws.
Following are summaries of what inewsource found:
- Briggs Law Corp. shares an address with more than 30 nonprofits, almost all of which Briggs and his firm have represented in court. Briggs Law Corp. is also responsible for having registered nearly all of the groups. Briggs’ cousin and his wife sit on the boards of at least 10 of them. According to state and federal filings, the majority of the nonprofits don’t exist outside of court. Instead, they serve as vehicles for lawsuits. State and federal agencies have suspended or revoked the nonprofit or corporate status of more than half of the groups — including San Diegans for Open Government — for failing to file legally required documents showing finances, mission statements and board structures.
- Briggs is married to Sarichia Cacciatore (inewsource confirmed this after requesting their confidential marriage certificate). Their marital status was a question in joint land transactions that were the subject of inewsource inquiries. She was a biologist for Helix Environmental Planning, a consulting firm that helps government agencies comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA is Briggs’ specialty. And Cacciatore was vice president of the Briggs Law Corp. The disclosure led to a $143,000 refund to the city from Helix.
- The Briggs Law Corp. has entered into deeds of trust with people in four Southern California counties since 2007 in amounts ranging from $15,000 to more than a million dollars. Some of the liens exceed the value of the properties. One of the nation’s leading experts on white collar crime, William Black, laughed when told about the transactions and stated that one reason for doing this would be “to hide flows and influence people.”
Disclaimer: San Diegans for Open Government is currently suing inewsource, KPBS and San Diego State University challenging the legality of their lease agreements. The Superior Court dismissed the case, concluding that it was prompted by inewsource’s investigative journalism, but SDOG has appealed.
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