Wal-Mart Suit Ends

Ontario’s four-and-a-half year long legal battle with a group of its own residents over effectuating the city’s approval of a Wal-Mart supercenter at the old White Front site at Fifth and Mountain drew to a close this week.
The Ontario Mountain Village Association, represented by attorney Cory Briggs, this week withdrew its appeal of Superior Court Judge Don Alvarez’s determination that Briggs was eligible to receive remuneration from the city of Ontario and Wal-Mart based only on those  issues sustained in the most recent challenge of the environmental impact report for the commercial behemoth. While the association had succeeded in delaying the project from proceeding for nearly a half decade and required that the city and the Wal-Mart Corporation expend more than a million dollars in attorney’s fees, the big box store will now proceed to completion.
The Ontario Mountain Village Association hastily formed in 2005 with the assistance of Briggs, an Upland-based attorney who has made challenging Wal-Mart supercenters on environmental grounds a mainstay of his legal career.
Briggs and the association raised a bevy of issues in the early opposition to the project and then filed a lawsuit after the city council approved the project in 2007. After a protracted back-and-forth, including Briggs’ challenge of the environmental impact report on seven distinct issues, Alvarez upheld only one of those as valid and ruled in October that Briggs was not entitled to the $487,000 he maintained he should be paid by the city and Wal-Mart for engaging in the legal showdown over those matters but rather would receive $54,000 for the work he did with regard to the single issue – the safe circulation of delivery trucks coming into the shopping center – the court had sustained as a shortcoming in the environmental impact report approved by the city.
Five months later, Briggs elected not to appeal that ruling and to forego the chance of the bigger payday. That means the other six environmental issues the association had raised are now moot. The city is addressing the truck safety issues and upon the court’s acceptance of mitigation measures put forth by the city and Wal-Mart, the project will proceed.
Briggs and the association, calculating that the appellate court would be unlikely to reverse the Superior Court ruling with regard to the other issues, elected not to carry an appeal forward.
Wal-Mart, as the project applicant, agreed to cover whatever legal costs the city of Ontario sustained with regard to challenges of the project approval. So far, Wal-Mart has reimbursed the city $673,500. In addition, Wal-Mart has paid its own attorneys $1.5 million according to a knowledgeable source.
Briggs said this most recent development is a footnote.
“The lawsuit has been over since last year,” Briggs said. “We raised several issues and the city made the improvements to the project we wanted. Before the suit was filed we went to the city, trying to have them improve the plan for the safety of the neighbors and the kids playing soccer across the street.  The judge decided the case in our favor two-and-a-half years ago and the city made the changes we told them they ought to make in June. The only thing hanging out there since has been the attorney fees. We initially decided to appeal and just decided to drop the appeal.”
Briggs deflected statements emanating from city officials to the effect that the association had lost the lawsuit or that the dropping of the appeal was a demonstration that he was not sincere in having waged the lawsuit or was merely attempting to shake down the city and Wal-Mart for legal fees.  He said that his interest in the lawsuit was based on propounding his client’s interest. He said Wal-Mart’s attorneys offered him over $500,000 to dismiss the suit.
“I made less than one twentieth of what the other attorneys were paid on this case,” he said. “I was offered in excess of a half million to walk away. I did not take them up on their offer.”
He absolutely rejected any suggestions that he was attempting to extort money from Wal-Mart or the cities contemplating having Wal-Mart supercenters locate within their borders.
“When a politician says I am a shakedown artist, ask them why it was that I went to court and won,” he said. “A better question is why are politicians spending taxpayer money after we tell them the problems they have with their development plans and they just blow off the recommendations and go forward and then end up in a legal fight they can’t win. And I do win. In any contest, baseball or basketball or hockey or in court if at the end the score is one to nothing, whoever scored the one wins. No one is ever going to win every argument but it is a lawyer’s job to make every reasonable argument and then let the judge decide. The city and its lawyers will not tell you that they made over 30 defenses of the suit and the judge rejected every one of them. It is easier for them to slip into attack mentality and make me out to be the boogey man instead of taking responsibility, which is a common trait among politicians, who are out of touch with the public good and what the law requires.  If you look at the merits of the case, you will see that we raised legitimate issues and the city made the improvements we asked for. In the end, after we took them to court, the mayor and even the lawyers for Wal-Mart said we had good ideas. I take it as a badge of honor when a politician has something bad to say about me.”
Ontario Mayor Paul Leon said, “I’m happy for the people of Ontario and that a long, drawn out dispute over Wal-Mart is apparently over. As in any dispute, there are people who are happy and others who aren’t but in the long run here, the city will be able to proceed with the development and people who live here will benefit from the jobs it produces.”

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