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State appeals court reverses nearly $1 million payment for San Diego attorney Cory Briggs

The ruling is Briggs’ latest loss due to a court finding his clients lacked legal standing.
Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource
Cory Briggs is photographed before a motion hearing at the Superior Court of California in San Diego on Jan., 23, 2020.

SAN DIEGO — Cory Briggs, who just lost his bid to become San Diego's city attorney, won't be getting nearly $1 million in attorney fees from a case against California Coastal Commission members.

The state 4th District Court of Appeal ruled last week that the nonprofit Briggs represented lacked legal standing to sue. It overturned a lower court decision to impose $57,000 in civil penalties against five current and former coastal commissioners. The opinion does not address whether the commissioners violated the law.

It’s Briggs’ latest loss due to a court finding his clients lacked legal standing.

In this case, his nonprofit client, Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, won in San Diego Superior Court, with a judge ruling the commissioners failed to disclose ex parte communications — private discussions with people who had matters before the agency. State law requires those communications to be made public within seven days.

The nonprofit’s case wasn’t against the agency, which governs the use of land and water along the state’s 1,100-mile coastal zone — an area larger than all of Rhode Island. Instead, Briggs argued in the 2016 lawsuit that the fines should be personally paid by the commissioners, who vote on permits for construction projects, public access changes and even some maintenance activities while overseeing a $32 million annual budget.

After winning, Spotlight described its suit as the first “to hold commissioners accountable” for violating communication rules. It was awarded nearly $930,000 in attorney fees and Briggs later placed liens on the commissioners’ properties to guarantee payment.

But a three-judge appeals court panel sided with the commissioners, saying Briggs’ client had no stake in two of its three claims. The court said Spotlight did have the standing to sue under the third claim, but the statute the group cited did not apply to ex parte communications.

Its ruling said the suit never sought to change any commission decisions and quoted Briggs arguing during trial that “a hefty financial penalty is the only thing that will suffice.”

“This case has always been all about money — civil fines and attorneys’ fees,” Justice Richard Huffman said in the Nov. 24 ruling.

Spotlight for Coastal Corruption sought more than $22 million in fines against the commissioners. Though the trial court agreed that the commissioners violated the law, it also found it “hard to argue that their conduct put any person or property in jeopardy.”

The suit named Steve Kinsey, Erik Howell, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell and Mark Vargas as defendants. Only Howell is still on the commission.

Briggs did not respond this week to a request for comment.

In February, a judge also dismissed a lawsuit he filed on behalf of the nonprofit San Diegans for Open Government, saying the group didn’t have standing to sue a former San Ysidro School District superintendent. Briggs is appealing the ruling.

The group, which Briggs frequently represents, also lost last December when the state Supreme Court said it lacked standing to file a conflict-of-interest lawsuit against the city of San Diego involving Petco Park construction debt.

When Briggs ran for city attorney this year, losing to incumbent Mara Elliott by 33 points, he described himself as a taxpayer advocate.

Briggs is known for suing public agencies over environmental and disclosure laws. Investigations by inewsource into his legal efforts show he often helps form many of the nonprofits he later represents in court, stalling major projects and collecting legal fees when he wins.

The groups have repeatedly violated state and federal law. Briggs lost out on attorney fees in 2016 because he knowingly represented a nonprofit that was suspended by the state Franchise Tax Board at the time, a move that the appeals court — in an opinion also authored by Huffman — described as “unethical and unprofessional conduct.”

Many of the nonprofits associated with Briggs remained out of compliance when he launched his city attorney campaign. Briggs previously told inewsource 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 nonprofit Briggs represented in 2017 against a Walmart development in Riverside County, was sanctioned after it failed to follow court orders to produce one of its members for a deposition. Walmart’s attorneys called CREED-21 a “shell corporation” for Briggs’ law firm.

Attorneys for San Diego’s Tourism Marketing District made similar allegations in a 2012 case Briggs brought against the agency on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government challenging the renewal of a tax on hotel owners. The suit was dismissed when the city eliminated the surcharge, and Briggs lost standing after a new tax was limited to large hotel owners.

Briggs’ law office helped incorporate Spotlight on Coastal Corruption in 2016. Kathryn Burton, a former San Diego assistant city attorney, is listed as the group’s CEO, but it has no employees and has never appeared at a Coastal Commission hearing.

Incorporation documents say the nonprofit’s purpose is “to educate the public about their rights to transparent, accountable, and responsible decision-making by the government when it comes to development projects in California’s coastal communities.” The group is in good standing with the California Secretary of State’s Office.

Representatives for the commission and the California Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the latest decision, citing pending litigation.

Briggs can now file a petition for rehearing or seek review by the state Supreme Court. If he does neither, the case will be returned to the trial court where the commissioners can seek attorney fees and costs from Spotlight on Coastal Corruption.