Escondido school officials let an elementary student get kidnapped and taken across the border.

A Chula Vista high school discriminated against female athletes.

A Fallbrook IT director accused of hacking into emails was fired for following orders.

These are just a few of the claims San Diego County public schools have had to defend against in court in recent years. The cases resulted in sky-high legal bills.


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And they share another commonality: The man who collected those legal bills is prolific attorney Dan Shinoff.

Shinoff, a partner at law firm Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, has managed to corner the school legal market in town for decades. Of the $38.7 million in total legal work doled out by a county schools group since July 1993, the firm has done $28.6 million of it – or a whopping 74 percent.

But things are changing. A handful of districts – some of which have lost high-profile cases that cost millions – are phasing him out, and one is openly criticizing his methods.

Now, 10 of his firm’s 30 attorneys have decided to leave to start their own partnership. Come April, law partners Leslie Devaney, William Pate, Jeffery Morris, Christina Cameron and six other attorneys, all part of the firm’s public agency team, will leave to start their own firm.

Devaney, who works as general counsel for the San Diego Convention Center Corp. and as city attorney for the city of Del Mar, would only say: “It has been a dream of mine for a while to build up such a team in private practice following the city attorney campaign in 2004 and start my own firm.”

Shinoff became the go-to schools attorney in San Diego County thanks in large part to an arrangement San Diego County school districts have to share the trouble of defending against lawsuits. They have a partnership run out of the San Diego County Office of Education.

Lawsuits against school districts are inevitable, and they created what is essentially an insurance pool that helps districts shoulder the costs of legal bills.

The 49 school districts and a handful of charter schools in the joint powers authority, or JPA, for the most part pay a flat rate based on student population in exchange for legal services when claims arise. Court losses can increase JPA membership rates too.

For decades, Shinoff has taken the bulk of the JPA’s cases.

Here’s a look at the amount of work doled out to various firms by the JPA:

JPA Totals

 

Many districts never see bills paid to Shinoff and other JPA attorneys on their behalf. They get occasional summaries and can ask to see the bills, but otherwise entrust JPA staff and Director Diane Crosier with close monitoring.

Crosier worked at Shinoff’s firm in the 1990s, and tapped him to represent her son in a 2003 lawsuit.

That, and Shinoff’s help screening and interviewing applicants for JPA claims workers, has attracted conflict-of-interest concerns in the past, but officials dismissed the issues.

“Giving one person $28 million worth of business, I don’t get that. Maybe there is a reason for it, but my assumption would be you have a pool of people and not let any one person dominate. That’s a system that’s healthy,” said Robert Fellmeth, director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law.

Not only is Shinoff’s firm shrinking, but clients seem to be balking too.

Sweetwater Union High School District recently brought to a close an eight-year gender-equity case repeatedly lost by Shinoff. The case, brought under Title IX over inferior girls’ softball facilities at Castle Park High, cost the district big.

Shinoff’s firm received more than $900,000 for the case. Sweetwater wound up paying $5.5 million in attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs, had to hire a new Title IX compliance officer and will pay up to $600,000 more in compliance costs over the next 10 years, according to a final settlement reached in September.

“This is the wonderful thing about being an attorney. If you fight a case you should have surrendered on, what is the penalty? A million dollars in fees. Really,” said Fellmeth.

Sweetwater has now moved much of its legal work in-house.

“I believe the board hired an in-house counsel to ensure there was one attorney whose job it was to solely monitor the district’s interests when it came to our legal positions,” said Jennifer Carbuccia, the district’s new general counsel.

In Poway Unified, where Shinoff is general counsel, district officials have flouted laws ensuring public access to meetings, access to executive contracts before they are approved and prohibitions against conflicts of interests in contract negotiations. Shinoff’s team removes even mundane public information from records through heavy-handed redactions before releasing them to the public.

Poway, too, is starting to rely less on Shinoff: Board members recently sought to expand their legal counsel options and plan to assign new matters to another firm soon.

Mira Costa College cut ties with Shinoff in 2011.

The San Ysidro School District raised the stakes last year and sued Shinoff’s firm and Shinoff individually for malpractice. It also lodged a state Bar complaint against him.

But even as pressure ratchets up, Shinoff remains busy with legal work and clients galore. He declined several interview requests over the last two months, citing his busy schedule chock full of court appearances, deadlines and depositions.

Shinoff previously called San Ysidro’s attack “misguided,” and his law partner Ray Artiano batted away the district’s claims as fiction. He attributed Shinoff’s market dominance to his quality.

“Mr. Shinoff has been my partner for over 30 years and his ethics are beyond reproach. In addition, he is an excellent and tireless advocate for his clients,” Artiano said. “We are proud the clients have enough confidence to place their trust in Mr. Shinoff and our firm to handle their work.”

Though the firm settled San Ysidro’s malpractice lawsuit quickly last year and paid the small border district $2 million, a firm fight over that money is now under way and more threats to Shinoff’s credibility are on the horizon.

The firm’s insurance carrier, Lawyers’ Mutual, which paid San Ysidro, is now asking for the firm to foot the bill and plans to depose the solar company owner whose breach-of-contract case was at the center of the district’s complaints.

The solar company also plans to sue Shinoff for suing the company without the district’s consent, a claim also made by the district.

“We are putting together a lawsuit against Shinoff for filing the cross complaint with no evidence and malice intent, and we believe, without the authorization of the school district,” said Art Castanares, CEO of Manzana Energy, parent company of EcoBusiness Alliance, the solar company whose contract with the school district was terminated and that won a multimillion judgement from the district in court.

Shinoff is also poised to get dragged into yet another San Ysidro dispute under way over the district payout he negotiated for former superintendent Manuel Paul. Shinoff is listed as someone Paul’s team plans to depose.

Still other concerns – some outlined in the still-unresolved state Bar complaint – hang over Shinoff’s head.

A meeting attended by Shinoff, Paul and a contractor to explain a cash gift that later led to criminal charges and prison time for Paul could be particularly precarious, since the contractor was wearing a wire for the FBI.

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, People

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at ashly.mcglone@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5669.

    12 comments
    Louis Russo
    Louis Russo

    I can't figure out how the shine is coming off Shinoff.  It was due to slime and he still has as much as ever.

    sosocal
    sosocal subscriber

    @anniej  You bring up some very good points.  Once decisions have been reached and settlements have been made, if nothing has been declared confidential, those terms should be part of the public record, and as such, made public. 

    When Sweetwater's Title IX lawsuit was underway, it did seem to drag on--but finally, when the decision was pronounced, it was a relief. (The school district had to pay up as the school in question did not support the girls' softball team in the manner that they supported the boys' baseball team).  That decision was no surprise, in fact, it seemed odd that the district would even fight a lawsuit like that that "any first year law student could tell them they would lose".  But yet--and yet--appeals were filed...and it dragged on and on and on.  Prime example of someone milking the system.  How much money was spent? Needlessly?

    I would like to say that this law firm has never had the best interests of the schools in mind.

    Will Bailey
    Will Bailey

    I currently live in Manhattan, NY but spent 32 years teaching in Poway Unified. I saw plenty from 1978-2010.

    There are two issues it seems to me: If parents would stop suing the district over every perceived micro-aggression (everyone in class got a free pencil but my son didn't=lawsuit) the districts wouldn't have to have large law firms on retainer. Secondly, the districts themselves (like PUSD) do a lot of decision making in the proverbial cigar, smoke filled back rooms. They like to keep their dealings in the dark and they tell themselves they are working in the best interests of the kids and parents. They are not. 

    How many people can say (with any sense of certainty) that they know what their school boards are up to?

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @Will Bailey 

    I agree that schools keep voters in the dark. Of course, they couldn't do this without the support of the teachers unions. Poway is ground zero for collusion between teachers and school officials. (The billion-dollar CAB bond deal is proof of this.) Voters have very little access to information about what is really going on in schools. But how many voters actually want to know what goes on in those back rooms? 

    sosocal
    sosocal subscriber

    It is great to behold the chipping away of the massive construct of Shinoff et al--this institutionalization of the diversion of public educational funds needs to end.


    Again, imagine the good these funds would have done the students. 


    Those complicit need also to be brought forward for questioning.



    DavidM
    DavidM subscriber

    @Bill Smith I am most definitely not a Shinoff-hater.  Twenty years ago I would have called him a professional friend; we spent hours and hours working together in defense of he same client.  But I have a problem today with any lawyer who shifts emphasis from finding a fair resolution to victory at all costs, especially if those costs are paid by others and a significant share of them go to the lawyer.  The idea that the firm helped interview the JPA personnel who would send cases to the firm and approve billing reeks of self-dealing.  Dan's handling of school district defense is no different than other lawyers' defense of other public entities defended by the firm, and in that respect I think the article is too limited and should include other partners.  I think their ethics are flawed - not necessarily because of violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct - although I've watched their lawyers (not Shinoff) solicit testimony they knew their client would disagree with.

    Anniej
    Anniej subscriber

    What I find MOST INTERESTING about this story is the fact that I am a Sweetwater taxpayer and I am learning the amount paid out in a FREAKING ON LINE NEWSPAPAER. I am quits sick of being told 'that is a Closed Session legal item and therefore can not be discussed

    Gaby Dow
    Gaby Dow subscribermember

    Excellent reporting Ashly. Thank you for looking into these issues that have troubled parents and teachers for quite some time.

    I'd specifically like to know how much of our tax money my kids' Poway Unified School District has wasted filing lawsuits and using attorneys to create and escalate actions against students, parents and teachers that dare to raise concerns, file a complaint, point out incompetence and abuse of power, or ask for services for their children?

    Christopher Garnier
    Christopher Garnier

    Your article is very well written Ms. McGlone.  Thank you for your hard work and dedication to finding and exposing the truth about Mr. Shinoff and his law firm.  The amount of money that Mr. Shinoff has taken from school districts is appalling. It is obvious this man cares solely about lining his pockets and the pockets of his firm, without regard to the children he is robbing. The money for activities, programs, supplies, etc, that could have been provided for or used by the children in the districts Dan Shinoff represents, instead went into his pocket and should be considered criminal. Dan Shinoff should be disgusted by his own greed and taxpayers should be disgusted by Mr. Shinoff's lack of moral fiber as he uses public finances, allocated for the education of children.  

    sosocal
    sosocal subscriber

    @Kathy S @Christopher Garnier


    I am curious, why are you making this personal, Kathy S? 


    We know that Mr. Collins has his supporters, despite years of truly egregious behavior and decision-making.  You are entitled to support Mr. Collins, but you need to understand that a great many people do not support Mr. Collins and those who have, for all intents and purposes, held Poway USD in a strangle-hold for years. 


    Face facts, that time is drawing to a close, and attacking those who are trying to get at the truth will only put you further into the forefront of the losing side.  Are you opposed to truth being made public?


    It might be time for you to realize the wrongs that have taken place at the hands of Mr. Collins, Mr. Shinoff, and all those who have been "in cahoots".


    The public is aware, and to quote an old saying, "We are not amused".  Yes, Mr. Garnier has been shut out--but that to me looks like the attempt of a corrupt few to maintain their power.  Simple as that.

    DavidM
    DavidM subscriber

    I spent more than 20 years working defense of civil liability claims, including public entity defense like Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz.  Before the firm shifted almost entirely to public entity defense, I enjoyed working with their attorneys.  They were calm, practical, and like many San Diego firms they put civility in civil law.  But with their business shift they became hired pit bulls; on the offensive in every defense.  Those suing their clients were subjected to meriless objections, and meritless defenses mixed with the practical and realistic.  A partner at the firm told a judge that she had no idea what the basis of a lawsuit was, even though a half hour earlier we had discussed it.  They solicit evidence contradicted by their client, not because they believe it to be true but because it's more mud on the wall.  Many of the cases they won were evidence of systemic problems in local public entities.  (E.g., Miramar College, for many years, didn't have a sex harassment investigation protocol; no one even knew what to do with a complaint.)  


    In my opinion, they represent the very worst of lawyers - a profession I have loved almost every day for 30 years.  I only wish this article went beyond the JPA and Shinoff to note that it includes most of their public entity clients and two generations of lawyers they hired and trained.