SAN DIEGO (CN) – A California judge has awarded a San Diego environmental attorney nearly $1 million in attorney’s fees for successfully bringing claims in a novel case against the California Coastal Commission over failed disclosures.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor ruled attorney Cory Briggs should be awarded $929,000 in attorney’s fees for his work on a case on behalf of watchdog group Spotlight on Coastal Corruption which brought claims in 2016 against the Coastal Commission and five former and current commissioners for failing to report private meetings and discussions – known as ex parte communications – in violation of the Coastal Act.
His tentative ruling, made official Monday, found no attorney’s fees should be awarded to the state.
Taylor presided over a bench trial earlier this year and ultimately found all five commissioners had violated ex parte reporting requirements – though the nearly $60,000 in penalties he awarded against the commissioners was significantly reduced from the over $20 million Spotlight on Coastal Corruption sought against the officials tasked with upholding the Coastal Act.
Despite the relatively low penalties the judge issued, he still found Briggs met his client’s objective “to shed light on lax ex parte disclosure practices at the commission.”
“This objective was met, with the court finding violations by each of the defendant commissioners and awarding substantial penalties against each of the defendant commissioners. Plaintiff’s then-nascent lawsuit was likely a catalyst for the 2016 changes in commission procedures,” the judge added in his ruling.
But in court Friday, Deputy Attorney General Joel Jacobs, representing the Coastal Commission, argued Spotlight on Coastal Corruption was not a singular prevailing party in the case and that prevailing party status should be decided “cause of action by cause of action.”
He pointed out the lion’s share of alleged ex parte violations were tossed in Taylor’s findings following the bench trial and that both parties should be awarded attorney’s fees for causes of action they prevailed on.
“If the plaintiffs obtained penalties on all causes of action it would be a different landscape,” Jacobs said in questioning “how successful” the plaintiffs were in the case.
Jacobs said the Coastal Commission has filed an appeal in the case.
But the judge rejected the argument that each violation, or non-violation, should be considered separately when awarding attorney’s fees.
“Under your analysis, they [Coastal Commissioners] contract with the people of the state of California. But it’s not fair to say it’s a different contract each time they fail to make a disclosure. There is one unified duty to disclose,” Taylor said.
Jacobs said while it is “undisputed ex parte communication has improved over the past couple of years,” he disputed that improvement was made as a direct result of the lawsuit filed by Spotlight on Coastal Corruption.
He said it was actually the result of a similar lawsuit out of Orange County and pointed out the commission had already made some changes a few weeks before the lawsuit was filed by Briggs in San Diego.
Taylor disputed that characterization, saying “the transcript of the trial will tell us whether I’m misremembering or not” and suggesting “one big fat lawsuit seeking millions of dollars” was the reason policy changes were made.
When Jacobs suggested Briggs had overlitigated the case by alleging hundreds of ex parte violations instead of “picking the strongest ones that would make the biggest splash,” the judge said it was unrealistic to expect Briggs to be able to predict the outcome of the case.
“In a case involving statutes that have never been evaluated by a court anywhere? I don’t know how you can stand there with a straight face and say that,” Taylor said.
“It wasn’t even predictable to me until I heard the evidence,” he added.
Briggs said the judge’s finding on attorney’s fees was appropriate since “my firm is the one with its fanny on the line” and he took the case without being paid by his client during the litigation.
“We achieved some of our goal and achieved a significant benefit. We didn’t have to hit a grand slam,” Briggs said.
Attorneys did not comment following the hearing. A spokeswoman for the Coastal Commission said they do not comment on pending litigation.