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How San Diego's Most Disruptive Lawyer Makes His Money

No attorney sues under the state’s main environmental quality law more than San Diego lawyer Cory Briggs. Depending on who you ask, that makes him either the environmental movement’s MLK, or the guy who’ll sue over anything – even a birdhouse.

Cory Briggs, the attorney who helped end the political career of Bob Filner, wants to stop a lot of other things in San Diego, too.

Like an expansion of the city’s Convention Center. And a half-dozen new neighborhood libraries and refurbished fire stations. And even a Jack in the Box drive-thru in North Park. All told, Briggs’ lawsuits are tying up more than $2 billion in projects across San Diego. No one paralyzes City Hall’s ability to do anything more than him, City Councilman Scott Sherman said.

“People are just scared to death Cory Briggs is going to sue over something,” Sherman said.

In fact, Briggs instills the same fear in politicians and developers all across Southern California. No attorney sues under the state’s main environmental quality law more than him.

These lawsuits all tend to follow a formula: A local City Council approves a big-box development, like a Wal-Mart. A nonprofit with a watchdoggy name sues, with Briggs as its attorney. The developer settles the case and pays Briggs for his trouble. It’s often unclear who is against the project other than Briggs himself.

To Briggs, a 45-year-old who grew up in San Bernardino County, this relentless string of court cases has made countless developments in California better for the environment. Solar panels gleam from the roofs of Wal-Marts and hundreds of new trees have been planted because of his lawsuits.

It just so happens that the suits also have been good for his business.

The House That Wal-Mart Built

Briggs’ $1.25 million home sits near the top of a hill in Sunset Cliffs. In the front, it has a big garden with a wide view of the Pacific Ocean. Briggs’ friends jokingly refer to the place as “The House That Wal-Mart Built.”

Briggs has taken on big-box developments from Kern County to the Mexico border for a decade. He guessed he’s filed dozens of lawsuits against them.

The settlements in these cases typically are confidential, though Briggs says that’s at the developer’s request, not his. Developers, he said, don’t want to broadcast how much they’re paying off attorneys because they don’t want to encourage more lawsuits.

Briggs’ primary opponent is Wal-Mart. It’s nothing personal against the world’s largest retailer – the company just happens to want to build projects that are bad for the environment and don’t react kindly to his clients’ demands, he said. Briggs believes he’s a fierce advocate for citizens who can’t take on powerful developers by themselves.

“Do I feel good about speaking up for those folks and making sure that they get their day in court?” Briggs said. “You’re damn right I do.”

For the most part, just who Briggs is actually representing in these cases remains mysterious. Briggs rarely names any people involved in a suit unless he’s forced to by a court. Even then, the same names often spring up no matter what city he’s suing.

The nonprofits Briggs has represented over the years share some striking similarities. First, take their names. His clients have included: Smart Growth Adelanto, Build Barstow Smart, Grow Victorville Smart, Concerned Citizens of Vista, Murrietans for Smart Growth, Blythe Citizens for Smart Growth, Indio Citizens for Smart Growth, Menifee Citizens for Smart Growth, Riverside Citizens for Smart Growth, Rialto Citizens for Responsible Growth and Redlands Good Neighbor Coalition.

Then there’s how the organizations are set up. The groups aren’t what you typically think of when you hear the word nonprofit.

Most don’t receive donations. If they did, the money wouldn’t be tax-exempt because the organizations haven’t filed anything with the IRS. Those that have sent tax returns to the state attorney general’s office often don’t list any income, assets or expenses. Many are currently facing fines for not completing proper paperwork. All registered with the state through Briggs’ law office in the Inland Empire.

How Briggs gets paid in these cases is another constant. When the groups win or settle, Briggs collects attorney’s fees from his opponents. When the groups lose, he gets nothing.

The approach has proven to be profitable.

It’s relatively easy to win cases involving the state’s main environmental quality law, known as CEQA, said Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney in the San Francisco office of law firm Holland & Knight. Over the years, a group of attorneys realized developers often would rather settle CEQA lawsuits quickly than risk losing and paying even more in fees, she said. Hernandez calls the lawyers “bounty hunters.”

“You leverage four or five hours’ worth of work and a $200 filing fee,” Hernandez said. “Then you can get $50,000 to $250,000 in settlements. That’s pretty good money.”

Her firm tracked all the CEQA suits in California for three years, ending in 2012. Briggs was responsible for 32 of them, about 5 percent of the total. No lawyer in the state filed more than Briggs in that time.

Focusing on his payout misses the point, Briggs said: When his cases settle, developers make their project better for the environment.

A legal settlement with a Briggs-affiliated nonprofit made a Wal-Mart in San Bernardino use more solar energy and recycle its fixtures and cardboard. Another settlement required a Dr. Pepper bottling plant in Victorville to rely on renewable energy to power the facility. A third forced a Target in Murrieta to plant 500 trees to offset greenhouse gases it produced.

For years, Briggs has heard complaints that he doesn’t have any real clients and just creates these nonprofits to shake down developers. In court, Briggs often is asked to prove he represents an actual person. He does – but it doesn’t always go smoothly.

In the Murrieta Target case, a judge ordered Briggs to make a member of the nonprofit, Murrietans for Smart Growth, available for a deposition. He produced its president, a retired minister and affordable housing advocate named Richard Lawrence. But Lawrence lives in San Diego. The judge said Briggs needed an actual Murrietan. He put forward Felicia Munoz-Grisham, a grocery store worker.

Lawrence testified that he didn’t know the name or address of anyone from Murrieta that was part of the group even though he was its president, according to newspaper accounts. Munoz-Grisham said she was a founding member of the group, but didn’t know anyone else in it.

Soon after Munoz-Grisham’s deposition, though, the case settled. Briggs had done enough to show he had a client.

No judge, Briggs said, has ever tossed one of his lawsuits because he failed to produce a person who had an interest in a case.

Even so, questions about who he actually represents persist. Briggs’ cousin, an accountant named Karin Langwasser, serves as treasurer for many of the nonprofits Briggs has sued from. Briggs said she volunteers her time.

The website for the Inland Oversight Committee, a nonprofit from which Briggs frequently sues in San Bernardino County, posts Briggs’ law office as its contact address. The website lists someone named Anthony Kim as the organization’s legal adviser. Kim is an attorney in Briggs’ office. The website also names Ian Trowbridge, a San Diegan and a Briggs ally, as the group’s chairman. Trowbridge died more than a year ago. Since Trowbridge’s death, Briggs has sued at least nine times on the group’s behalf.

And records connect Lawrence, the San Diegan who was president of the Murrieta group, to more than a half dozen of the nonprofits. One of those groups is based in Blythe, a city on the Arizona border that’s more than 200 miles from San Diego.

In an interview, Lawrence said he didn’t know anything about developments in Murrieta, Blythe or other cities outside San Diego until Briggs told him. Lawrence belongs to a San Diego-based group called Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development. At the group’s monthly meetings, Briggs brings forward possible suits from around Southern California. The group links up with citizens who have been in touch with Briggs and live near the development to create a subsidiary organization based in that city. The local subsidiary of the San Diego group files the lawsuit, Lawrence said.

“This is a carefully designed mechanism by which we want to effect change,” Lawrence said.

Cory-Briggs-1Lawrence said he’s been an activist all his life, but Briggs turned him onto the environmental movement. Lawrence marched with Martin Luther King Jr. against Chicago’s segregationist housing policies in the mid-1960s. What he and Briggs do now reminds him of back then.

“Cory, in the environmental battle, is as important to that battle as Dr. King was to the civil rights movement,” Lawrence said.

‘Come Here Again to Cause Trouble and You’re Dead’

Two years ago, Briggs filed a lawsuit against a big-box development in Victorville, a San Bernardino city north of Big Bear Lake. Soon after, Briggs received a letter in the mail. It had no return address and the postmark was smudged. Inside was a threat pieced together using cut-out magazine letters.

“Stay out of our high desert,” the letter said. “Come here again to cause trouble and you’re dead.”

briggs magazine threat

It wasn’t the first threat Briggs said he’s received, and it wasn’t the last.

About a decade ago, Briggs hired retired Secret Service and FBI agents to perform a security sweep after a break-in at his Inland Empire office. The agents discovered, Briggs said, that someone had put keystroke-tracking software on his computers to remotely monitor what he was typing. People have threatened to beat him up after court and City Council hearings. Twice someone has thrown paint on his house in the middle of the night. The second time, Briggs chased the perpetrator down the road until she reached her getaway car.

Briggs recently told a San Diego judge about all these incidents while representing another nonprofit in a lawsuit against the city. The judge was weighing whether to order Briggs to disclose the nonprofit’s membership list. Briggs, the judge noted, frequently files lawsuits against public officials to force them to reveal records. (Five years ago, he offered to sue the city for public records on Voice of San Diego’s behalf.)

So the judge wondered why Briggs insists on government transparency, but fights to keep the names of the people he represents a secret.

The answer, Briggs argues, is simple: Individuals have privacy rights protected by the Constitution, but governments have to be open. He also fears for his clients’ well-being.

“It’s the reason why I’d rather take the heat for not being completely candid about who these folks are than run around with a list of who’s in the group,” he said.

Briggs often tears up when he talks about his clients, family and those who have helped him in life. It’s not the kind of reaction you’d expect from a combative plaintiff’s attorney. In a lot of ways, Briggs is hard to pigeonhole.

He can be acerbic in court – in one case he called the feud between Filner and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith “a no-holds-barred political death spiral.” But in regular conversation, his voice is soft and measured. Briggs prefers flip-flops and shorts in the office to suits and ties. When he’s forced to dress up, Briggs accessorizes with three hoop earrings in his left ear.

Last summer, it was Briggs and two progressive allies, former City Councilwoman Donna Frye and fellow environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, who first blew the whistle on the scandals that forced Filner from office.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

People often referred to the trio all as Democrats. Frye and Gonzalez are. But even though Briggs has long worked to further left-wing causes in San Diego, he isn’t registered with a political party. Democrats, he said, think the solution to every problem is to throw money at it.

And while Frye and Gonzalez wanted to take down Filner because of his treatment of women, Briggs initially urged Filner to resign for a different reason. He believed Filner was illegally shaking down a developer. He points to that when people say he’s against developers.

Briggs comes from a civically active family in Ontario, a San Bernardino city where his parents still live. His brother Curtis is a Bay Area defense attorney who is representing reputed mobster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow in a massive bribery and gunrunning scandal. Briggs’ grandfather Homer was a local school superintendent and has a park named after him in Ontario.

Growing up, Briggs shunned civic pursuits. He preferred his life as a bassist in a 1980s hair band. Briggs would not reveal his band’s name because he didn’t want anyone to Google it. He did say he once opened for Guns N’ Roses.

Ultimately, Briggs realized he wasn’t going to be a rock star so he started taking his education more seriously. He first came to San Diego in the early 1990s for law school at California Western. Briggs likes being a lawyer because courts play by a defined set of rules.

In politics, he said, no one has to answer your questions and when people do, they’re allowed to lie. In court, you have to talk, you have to tell the truth and an unbiased third party decides who wins.

‘How Do I Do This Diplomatically and Not Get Sued?’ 

Ask Chino Mayor Dennis Yates about Briggs. This is the kind of response you get.

“Oh my god, my buddy,” Yates said. “Holy Christ. Oh yeah, do I know Cory Briggs. How do I do this diplomatically and not get sued?”

Chino, a medium-size city in San Bernardino, might be the only place where Briggs is considered even more of a scourge than he is in San Diego. Since 2010, he’s filed roughly two lawsuits a year against developments there. When Briggs threatened a lawsuit over a project during a recent Chino City Council meeting, moans could be heard within the chamber.

Cory-Briggs-2“It tends to hurt our business climate because when people come in they know they got to deal with that jerk,” Yates said. “If you want to build a birdhouse in Chino, Cory Briggs is coming after you.”

California’s environmental laws already allow an attorney like Briggs to target a city if he doesn’t think it’s following the rules. But in Chino, Briggs has out-Briggsed himself: First, he sued under CEQA – he settled a lawsuit three years ago in which he claimed the city’s development blueprint didn’t account for air-pollution increases. On top of the $215,000 in attorney’s fees he pocketed in the case, the settlement also required Chino to develop a plan to address climate change. Briggs helped put that plan together. Since the settlement, he has continued to sue, arguing the city and developers aren’t following the rules he helped create.

Briggs called Chino’s new environmental regulations some of the most stringent in the state. If the city would just follow them, Briggs said, he’d stop suing.

“We’ve beat them pretty badly and they had to get in line,” Briggs said.

Indeed, when it comes to Briggs, Yates sounds like a man defeated. The mayor ended an interview about Briggs with a personal plea.

“Help me,” Yates said.

NBC7 San Diego’s Wendy Fry contributed to this report.

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