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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.
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:
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.