Attorney Cory Briggs. (Photo by Sam Hodgson)
By Brad Racino | inewsource
A state appeals court has affirmed punishing sanctions in a lawsuit involving local environmental attorney Cory Briggs for failing to obey court orders. The decision ends a lawsuit Briggs filed on behalf of a nonprofit against a Wal-Mart in Riverside County and establishes legal precedent. The admonishment arose after CREED-21, the nonprofit Briggs was representing in court, “willfully failed to obey” two court orders to produce one of its members.
Attorneys for Wal-Mart alleged CREED-21 “was a shell corporation that Briggs used to recover attorney fees from large corporations.” Lawyers who have faced Briggs in the past have echoed Wal-Mart’s concerns. The city of San Diego, in one case, argued the nonprofits existed to employ the Briggs Law Corp.
“This case is a piece of evidence that’s going to get cited in other cases,” said San Diego attorney Charles Bird, “by people who think that Cory doesn’t really have clients.”
Briggs did not respond to a request for comment.
The case drew the attention of San Diego attorneys who have fought Briggs’ lawsuits over the years and alleged similar abuses of the legal system. Five law firms, including the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, successfully petitioned the 4th District Court of Appeal to publish its opinion. It can now be cited as precedent.
Legal experts told inewsource that courts rarely issue terminating sanctions, as the court did in the Wal-Mart case, because their results – in this case an end to a lawsuit – can be so severe.
The sanctions “have to be based on serious abuses of the discovery process,” said Bird, who specializes in appellate law at Dentons.
Briggs is well-known throughout Southern California for filing hundreds of environmental or open-government lawsuits against local cities, agencies and developers. Although he has a reputation as a champion of the little guy and a transparency advocate, some of Briggs’ most litigious clients are nonprofits created and controlled almost entirely by his firm – the Briggs Law Corp.
This means when one of the Briggs Law Corp.’s nonprofit clients loses a case or is required to pay attorney fees, Briggs can argue that the nonprofit has no funds. Those who’ve litigated against Briggs have long urged courts – to no avail – to “pierce the corporate veil,” and find Briggs, not the nonprofits, accountable.
The 4th District’s opinion, published Dec. 19, comes close. Although the justices did not rule on that specific issue, their decision can be cited in other cases to urge judges to scrutinize the nonprofits Briggs represents.
The decision is now part of Briggs’ “dirty laundry,” said Richard Leuthold, an attorney certified by the California State Bar as a specialist in legal malpractice law. Discovery abuse “should be treated as legal malpractice,” according to an article published in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.
“If the State Bar saw more than one instance of that,” Leuthold said, “they would jump in right away.”
Attorney Cory Briggs and Former City Councilwoman Donna Frye call on Mayor Bob Filner to resign at a press conference outside of the Briggs Law Corp. in 2013.
(Photo by Sam Hodgson)
More than one instance
The case at the heart of the appellate court opinion was a lawsuit Briggs filed against Wal-Mart in the city of Wildomar, which is just north of Murrieta off Interstate 15. Briggs contended that Wildomar had not properly addressed traffic and other concerns in its environmental impact report for a proposed Wal-Mart – a company Briggs has sued in other cities.
The issue that finally broke the case was CREED-21’s refusal to produce anyone to justify standing. Standing means a client must have something at stake in the case.
Wal-Mart argued that CREED-21 lacked standing and asked Briggs to produce a client for deposition. Briggs refused and said the group’s membership was irrelevant. The court then compelled CREED-21 to produce a member, but Briggs asked for a three-week extension because, he said, his father had undergone surgery and he was the only person who could care for him. The court, citing that the case had been “dragged out and dragged out,” denied the request.
The story was familiar to Briggs’ past opponents.
San Diegans for Open Government (SDOG), a nonprofit controlled and paid for by Briggs, sued the City of San Diego in a five-year-long case that challenged the renewal of the city’s Tourism Marketing District, which collects money from motels and hotels for initiatives that will attract visitors to the city.
During the case, the city and the marketing district tried to discover whether Briggs’ client, SDOG, “had any member who had paid, or was obligated to pay,” the assessment the lawsuit challenged.
The Briggs Law Corp. “consistently blocked any attempt” by the city to discover the information, according to court documents.
No one from the Briggs Law Corp. could provide a response, Briggs argued, because: His paralegal’s grandmother’s had to undergo emergency surgery, his associate’s aunt passed away, and his parents’ house “exploded, caught fire, and was rendered uninhabitable – all simultaneously.”
The marketing district won the case because SDOG could not prove standing. When the judge ordered monetary sanctions, SDOG said it had no money.
Defendants in both the SDOG and the CREED-21 cases alleged Briggs’ nonprofit clients were shell corporations.
Wal-Mart cited depositions from previous cases that stated Briggs Law Corp. handled all of CREED-21’s tax filings and fronted all the money for its lawsuits. Briggs Law Corp. has the same arrangement with San Diegans for Open Government.
inewsource identified other instances of the hazy line between Briggs and his nonprofits.
For example, Briggs sent a letter to the mayor and city council of Rohnert Park, which is north of San Francisco, in November 2015. In it, he urged them not to approve a community facilities district, which can impose special taxes, “on behalf of my clients.” One of the clients he referred to in the letter is a nonprofit called the California Voter-Taxpayer Protection Organization. According to public documents, Briggs serves as the chief executive officer, secretary, chief financial officer, agent and legal counsel for the California Voter-Taxpayer Protection Organization.
The other client is a nonprofit called the California Taxpayers Action Network. Briggs was listed as that organization’s president on documents from May of 2015.
Another example was reflected in a 2014 Briggs Law Corp. job announcement for an associate-level attorney that advertised a possible “Non-profit Employment Credit.”
The announcement read, “If it is helpful to the successful candidate to be officially employed by a non-profit organization (e.g., to receive student-loan forgiveness), it may be possible to have the successful candidate employed by a non-profit but overseen on legal matters” by the Briggs Law Corp.
Attorney Cory Briggs leaves court after arguing a case against the City of San Diego.
(Photo by Sam Hodgson)
A question of membership
In the Wildomar case, attorneys for Wal-Mart argued that CREED-21 had only two members at the time the lawsuit was filed.
One was Richard Lawrence, a retired minister and civil rights advocate who lives in San Diego.
An inewsource analysis of public records found Lawrence is listed as a board member for at least 10 other Briggs-related nonprofits involved in litigation in Adelanto, Blythe, Barstow, Murrieta, Rialto, Riverside, and San Diego.
The other member of CREED-21 is Briggs’ cousin, Karin Langwasser, who is a certified public accountant listed as the chief financial officer for at least nine Briggs-related nonprofits involved in litigation in Adelanto, Barstow, San Antonio Heights and San Diego.
Langwasser was also the CFO for the Southwest Center on Renewable Energy, a nonprofit that inewsource found had no real-world presence, was missing nearly a quarter-million dollars from its books and was overseen by Briggs and his wife.
There are at least 48 Briggs-related nonprofits, according to an inewsource database built from public records. The California Secretary of State has no documents listing corporate officers for twelve of the nonprofits. Of the remaining 36, a handful of names surface repeatedly as corporate officers. Aside from Briggs, Lawrence and Langwasser, they are: Pedro Quiroz, Jr.; Theresa Quiroz; Bill Powers, an engineer who specializes in utility and energy resource management; and Sarichia Cacciatore, Briggs’ wife and a former project manager for an environmental planning company.
(Because of a conflict of interest uncovered by inewsource in 2015 between Cacciatore’s former employer and Briggs, the environmental consulting company she had worked for paid the city of San Diego $143,382 to resolve the dispute.)
Cacciatore, Lawrence, and Langwasser have been questioned under oath about their membership in Briggs’ nonprofits. Cacciatore said she didn’t know she was listed as a key member of SDOG in the case against the Tourism Marketing District and didn’t know what what the group did. Lawrence said despite his job as secretary for SDOG, he kept no records of meetings or reports. Langwasser, the group’s treasurer, said she’d never been to a meeting and had no knowledge of the group’s operations.
Attorney Cory Briggs argues an SDOG case over the Tourism Marketing District in San Diego County Superior Court.
Requests to publish
Because CREED-21 would not comply with court orders to produce a member or pay sanction fees to Wal-Mart, the trial court issued a sanction that resulted in termination of the case. That only happens, the appellate court noted, where “a violation is willful, preceded by a history of abuse …”
Briggs appealed and lost. The 4th District ruled, in an unpublished opinion, that the lower court’s sanction “did not constitute an arbitrary or capricious action” based on Briggs and his co-counsel’s’ “entire record of the discovery abuses.”
That may have been the end of it, until Briggs’ adversaries – in a flurry of letters – wrote the court, urging it to publish the opinion so it could be broadly cited.
It took five different parties, including the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, the California Building Industry Association, a Southern California land-use firm, San Diego’s Tourism Marketing District and Wal-Mart, to persuade the appeals court to change its mind.
“Getting an unpublished decision published takes an act of congress,” said Leuthold, the legal malpractice attorney.
The City Attorney’s Office and the Tourism Marketing District both wrote letters about Briggs’ history of “discovery abuses.” They argued a published opinion could be used to curb future Briggs lawsuits. The other three firms were more concerned with setting precedent to thwart abuses of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – Briggs’ specialty – throughout the state.
The attorneys for Wal-Mart said the appellate decision appeared to be the first of its kind, issuing sanctions for failure to comply with discovery orders in cases involving CEQA. (Discovery is the process during which attorneys ask for information that will illuminate their case before trial.)
An attorney for Gresham Savage Nolan & Tilden, a Southern California environmental and land-use law firm, also urged publication to clarify CEQA law.
“We have seen numerous CEQA actions filed for what we suspect are anti-competitive or ‘for profit’, economic interests,” the lawyer wrote. “However, CEQA is not intended to serve as a medium for these types of lawsuits.”
Arthur Coon is an environmental and land-use attorney with Miller Starr Regalia, a firm that had no part in the CREED-21 lawsuit. Coon said it’s commonplace for attorneys to use CEQA as a vehicle for getting labor agreements out of developers. It’s called “greenmailing” – as opposed to “blackmailing.” The end result is not to win the case but rather to get something from the developer, he said.
But, Coon said, “Some of these one-stop shops have upped the ante and they’re not representing labor – they’re representing themselves just to get fees.
“It’s sort of a disturbing development.”
California 4th District Court of Appeal justices listen to oral arguments by John McClendon, who represents San Diegans for Open Government in its lawsuit against inewsource.
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:
After 17 stories, SDOG – 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. SDOG 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.
inewsource is an independent, investigative journalism nonprofit supported by foundations, philanthropists and viewers like you.
Read additional stories on the inewsource.org website.