The Briggs Law Corp. has asked the California Supreme Court to review a ruling that ended a lawsuit filed by local attorney Cory Briggs, drew the attention of the San Diego City Attorney’s Office and established new legal precedent.
Briggs is representing the nonprofit CREED-21 in its case against a Wal-Mart project in Wildomar, a fast-growing Riverside County city north of Temecula. The nonprofit argued the development’s approval violated the California Environmental Quality Act, a state law that requires government agencies identify — and if possible avoid or mitigate — the impacts of their actions on the environment.
Briggs is a well-known San Diego attorney who helped spearhead the effort to remove former Mayor Bob Filner from office in 2013 and led an unsuccessful campaign for a 2016 ballot measure to raise hotel taxes, end the Tourism Marketing District and prohibit the expansion of a contiguous downtown convention center. But he is perhaps best known for the hundreds of high-profile lawsuits he’s filed against local governments and developers – challenging waterfront developments and commercial projects on behalf of nonprofits that, as inewsource has documented, he has created or controls.
Briggs gets attorney fees when he wins these cases. When he loses and is ordered to pay opposing counsel’s attorney fees, he often claims the nonprofit has no money.
Over the past three years, inewsource has extensively documented the connection between the nonprofits, Briggs and his firm. Questions about the members of those nonprofits also have recently become more prevalent in litigation involving Briggs’ firm.
In the Wildomar case, the question led to monetary and issue sanctions — courtroom reprimands for failing to follow orders — the latter of which effectively lost CREED-21 its case.
Wal-Mart’s counsel didn’t believe CREED-21 had a legitimate member to prove “standing” (standing means a client must have something at stake in the case), so it sought to question one under oath and secured a judge’s order to do so. Wal-Mart argued CREED-21 twice “willfully failed to obey” that order, as well as an order to pay the company $3,000.
As a result, a Riverside County Superior Court judge issued a sanction that resulted in the ending of the case.
Last month, the state 4th District Court of Appeal upheld that decision. It noted that terminating sanctions only happen where “a violation is willful, preceded by a history of abuse.”
Initially, the opinion was “unpublished,” so it couldn’t be cited in future court cases. But then past and current legal opponents of Briggs and his law firm, including the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, petitioned the court to publish the decision. The 4th District obliged, and the ruling can now be cited in California courtrooms to urge judges to scrutinize the nonprofits Briggs represents.
But on Jan. 8, the Briggs Law Corp. on behalf of CREED-21 petitioned the state Supreme Court for review, calling the lower court’s opinion “decidedly wrong.”
“If it is allowed to stand,” the law firm wrote, petitioners such as CREED-21 “will be subject to intrusive, costly depositions on an issue that should be resolved by less costly means.”
A serious opinion
Heather Linn Rosing, a managing attorney at the Klinedinst law firm in San Diego and an expert in legal ethics, professionalism and malpractice, told inewsource the 4th District’s opinion was “a pretty serious” one. Like dozens of attorneys contacted by inewsource over the past three years, Rosing has faced Briggs as opposing counsel in a case.
After reading the opinion, she said that “while the appellate court did not make any explicit findings, the facts described in the case suggest that CREED-21 may be an entity created by Mr. Briggs with no real place of business, assets, employees, or other types of things you would see usually with an entity of this nature, and rather was created solely for the purpose of the litigation.”
Documents obtained from the California Secretary of State’s Office, the California Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service show CREED-21 to be the environmental version of Briggs’ most litigious client — the nonprofit San Diegans for Open Government. Specifically, this is what the records show:
- Both are managed, legally represented and financially supported by the Briggs Law Corp.
- Both have exactly the same mission statement — promoting “social welfare through advocacy for and education regarding responsible and equitable environmental development.”
- Both listed Briggs’ cousin, Karin Langwasser, as their chief financial officer.
Both also have been accused by Briggs’ opponents in court documents of being shell corporations that enable the attorney to recover attorney fees from developers, government agencies and large corporations.
Briggs has denied the accusations and did not respond to an inewsource request for an interview.
In its coverage of Briggs, inewsource has documented the growing list of nonprofit entities closely associated with the attorney or his firm. It now totals 48.
Eighteen list Briggs, his cousin or his wife as a board member. The state has no detailed information for twelve of the nonprofits, and the remaining groups often list Briggs’ associates as board members.
Nine of the nonprofits have either a website or Facebook page. inewsource could find no presence outside of a courtroom for the remaining 39.
Local legal reaction
In January, attorney and legal ethics expert Edward McIntyre wrote an op-ed for the San Diego County Bar Association newsletter for emerging lawyers. In it, McIntyre dissected the CREED-21 case. He wrote that the State Bar Act makes “willful disobedience of a court order a ground for suspension or disbarment,” and a state law mandates “a lawyer maintain the respect due to the courts and judicial officers.”
Speaking to inewsource, McIntyre added that the issue of the CREED-21 case involving Wal-Mart is compliance. When a court issues an order, he said, a party has three choices: test it by appeal or writ, comply with it and test it later, or disobey it.
If a party chooses the last option, they run “the risks that you’re going to suffer some sanctions,” McIntyre said.
He concluded his ethics column with a question:
“Did the conduct in this case create sufficient ill will that a party or lawyer will file a State Bar complaint? That is unknown, but the appellate court’s now published opinion would be an uncomfortable backdrop.”
McIntyre did not suggest that such a complaint would be successful.
The Supreme Court has at least 60 days to make a decision to review the appeal court’s ruling.
inewsource’s three-year investigation
Over the past three years, inewsource has written more than 35 stories about Briggs, his lawsuits, his land transactions and his nonprofits.
These stories laid out in detail and with documentation:
- The network of nonprofits affiliated with Briggs — including how many are composed of Briggs’ family or close associates and how more than half have had their nonprofit status revoked or suspended;
- Briggs Law Corp.’s multimillion-dollar land deals that one white-collar criminologist interviewed said “are never done in honest business dealings”;
- An appeals court decision referring to Briggs’ behavior as both “unethical” and “unprofessional.” A legal ethicist called Briggs’ conduct “playing with ethical fire”;
- A law professor and fraud expert calling Briggs’ actions toward one of his former clients a “serious attorney ethics violation”;
- Briggs’ wife’s conflicts-of-interest that resulted in San Diego taxpayers being awarded $143,382; and much more.
After 17 stories, San Diegans for Open Government — Briggs’ most litigious nonprofit — sued inewsource and San Diego State University (where inewsource is housed).
It did not challenge the accuracy of inewsource reports about Briggs. Instead, it challenged the terms of the contract inewsource and SDSU have for space. For the first time, the nonprofit was represented by an attorney other than one from the Briggs Law Corp.
inewsource won the case at the Superior Court. San Diegans for Open Government appealed and lost again at the appellate court level, with a three-judge panel agreeing that the lawsuit was an attempt to curtail free speech rights.
The case is pending before the state Supreme Court.
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