Skip to main content

The bitter saga of Sweet James, San Francisco’s newest Muni bus ad lawyer

Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

The pantheon of personal injury attorneys hawking their services in San Francisco has a new member: Sweet James.

He trundled into the city on May 1, squinting from the side of a Muni bus ad, his hornet yellow 800 number shining beneath him.

If you live in San Francisco, you’re probably wondering: Who the heck is Sweet James?

Behind the widespread Muni ads—he’s bought 200—is a Newport Beach-based law firm with a large footprint in California, Arizona and Nevada. At its helm sits James Bergener, who purportedly earned the moniker “Sweet” because of the close bonds he forms with his clients.

But it’s not all sugar. 

In a 2019 lawsuit, Bergener’s former business partner alleged that his “erratic behavior” damaged the Sweet James brand. His wife’s subsequent participation in the 16th season of Bravo’s hit reality TV show, Real Housewives of Orange County, threw Bergener’s reported financial troubles and the dissolution of their marriage into the spotlight.

Even Bergener admits there’s been some spice.

“I grew up in a very conservative, puritan background,” Bergener said in a video message released in December 2021. “With [my ex-wife] Noella, I explored a world of sex, drugs and rock & roll. We went down a very unhealthy path. And I lost almost everything—including myself.”

‘The Dense Beard of Justice’

Bergener, 52, grew up in Utah. He is an ex-Mormon, his ex-wife said on Real Housewives. His first job, he once told an interviewer, was as a stock boy at Thrifty Drug at age 15.

He attended the University of Utah, and in 2002, he graduated from Whittier College School of Law in Southern California. (Whittier would later discontinue its law school due to its graduates’ poor rates of passing the bar and finding employment.)

Less than two years after graduating, Bergener founded his law firm.

Before launching his Muni bus ad campaign, Bergener’s firm was already fielding personal injury cases in San Francisco. It advertises having a local office Downtown in the tower at 1 Sansome St.

But Bergener lacks the kind of name—and face—recognition here that he enjoys in SoCal, where he even has a radio segment—called “Justice With Sweet James”—on sports radio station KLAC.

“I have offices in Los Angeles, and you can’t walk down the street in Los Angeles without knowing who Sweet James is,” said Christopher Dolan, a well-known Bay Area personal injury attorney. 

According to him, Northern California lawyers have traditionally been more reluctant to be perceived as “billboard lawyers,” leaving that niche open.

“Why are they coming up north? Because the LA market is oversaturated with large-scale, advertising lawyers,” Dolan said.

Just how big is the Sweet James law firm? It’s tough to measure, but the firm isn’t shy about singing its own praises. It has won $1 billion for clients, its website boasts. Besides Bergener, it also lists 20 lawyers with the firm.

A key component of its strategy has been branding: Billboards, bus ads, talk-show appearances, radio spots and TV ads—including ones featuring professional surfer Samantha Sibley and tough-guy Machete actor Danny Trejo

“Not even the cougars of LA are enough to scare me,” Trejo declares from the screen. “But if I get into an accident, I’m calling the boss: Sweet James.”

In a 2020 trademark misappropriation lawsuit against another law firm, the firm claimed that, since 2012, it had spent $50 million promoting the “Sweet James” trademark, including $10 million in the past year.

It's serious about those trademarks. In an ad for the firm, Los Angeles sportscaster Petros Papadakis claims to have bestowed the nickname “Sweet James” on Bergener because he didn’t fit the stereotype of personal injury attorneys and was, well, sweet. But he also created an alternate moniker: “The Dense Beard of Justice.”

The law firm has trademarked it and the variation “The Beard of Justice,” according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

James Bergener and Laurel Thorp attend the Art Sense Opening Gala at the Orange County Museum of Art in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Oct. 1, 2022. | Source: Ryan Miller/Getty Images

Because of all these advertisements, strangers regularly recognize Bergener on the street, and the firm has been able to enter into “lucrative referral agreements with prominent personal injury attorneys” throughout the country, the firm stated in its trademark case.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency declined to tell The Standard how much Sweet James spent on the San Francisco bus campaign, due to “competitive trade secrets.”

To make so much advertising cost effective, a law firm needs a large volume of clients, said Nikolaus Reed, a Bay Area personal injury attorney.

While he cannot speak to the quality of the Sweet James firm, he sees some risks arising for clients when lawyers advertise so heavily.

“You should choose an attorney based on their qualifications, not on their advertisements,” he said. “Sometimes people conflate the two and think that, because they’re advertising so much, they must be good.”

Sweet James v. What’s Right Sam

Despite the firm’s growth, not everything has been smooth. 

In 2019, then-partner Sam Mirejovsky filed suit against the firm and “Sweet James” himself. He alleged Bergener’s “erratic behavior” and personal animosity toward him had led to a deadlock in the management of Bergener Mirejovsky PC.

In his legal complaint, Mirejovsky accused Bergener of going AWOL, misusing over $2 million of the firm’s funds and behaving inappropriately.

Mirejovsky claimed that, while still married to his first wife, Bergener had held a “mock wedding ceremony” with Noella Bergener and proceeded to spend $86,000 of firm funds on a honeymoon to Singapore, Paris, Abu Dhabi and Milan. 

The ceremony “made a highly negative impression on several of [the firm’s] most important representatives and endorsers,” Mirejovsky alleged.

A lawyer for Bergener would later confirm in a statement that he and Noella Bergener had only legally married in June 2020.

Other allegations were even more unusual. James Bergener missed a flight to an important business meeting because was having a sexual encounter with his wife and a firm employee, the complaint claimed.

As a result of these alleged actions, Mirejovsky asked the court to appoint a provisional director to manage the firm or, alternately, to order its dissolution.

The Standard was unable to reach James and Noella Bergener for comment. Questions directed to Sweet James’ press contact went unanswered.

However, in a cross-complaint against Mirejovsky, Bergener called the allegations “outrageous and baseless.” He then leveled his own charges against his partner.

He claimed that, despite being given half-ownership of the firm for free, Mirejovsky had secretly been defrauding Bergener of hundreds of thousands of dollars—money that was allegedly spent renovating a condominium and buying art from a gallery in Prague.

Bergener asked the court to rule that his partner had fraudulently received 50% of the firm’s stock and return it to him.

Mirejovsky declined to comment for this story. In a court filing, he called the cross-complaint “empty retaliation.”

The two lawyers settled their disagreement in 2020, and Mirejovsky sold his share in the firm. Today, he runs a new personal injury firm in Las Vegas, Sam & Ash Injury Law, where he has used the moniker “What’s Right Sam.”

A Sweet James advertisement on a Muni bus on Columbus Avenue in North Beach in San Francisco on Thursday Aug 3, 2023. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Enter: 'The Real Housewives of Orange County'

If you’re now thinking “Not-So-Sweet James,” quit patting yourself on the back. You’re not the first to make that joke. Real Housewives of Orange County broadcast it to millions of people.

When Noella Bergener joined the cast for Season 16, which ran from December 2021 to late April 2022, she brought Sweet James to a new reality TV audience.

Noella Bergener added a splash of zany to the bougie Orange County cast, bragging to her friends about the couple’s sex dungeon and, later, about gifting him—ahem—a “stack of vaginas” for his birthday. Don’t Google this at work.

Although “Sweet James” did not personally take part in the series, he was a constant feature of the plotline.

By Episode 2, Noella Bergener said she had learned her husband owed nearly $6 million in taxes to the U.S. government. The Standard could not find documentation of these tax liens.

Soon thereafter, he served her with divorce papers, which became a central plotline of the season. 

During the first attempt, Noella Bergener was not home, and her mother received the divorce papers instead. 

The papers were from Puerto Rico—where the couple had moved before Noella Bergener returned to California to take part in the show—and were written only in Spanish. She had to ask her son’s nanny to translate them for her. 

During the second attempt, James Bergener disguised the service as a flower delivery to ensure she would personally receive the divorce papers, Noella Bergener recounted to her costars.

So where are they now?

Radar Online recently reported that a judge had ordered James Bergener to pay Noella Bergener $25,000 a month in child support for their son, James Jr., and that she had no other income.

In his December 2021 video message, James Bergener said he was doing well.

“Since our separation, I am healthy and happy. I’ve focused on being a better person, living a better lifestyle for myself, for my son,” he said. “I take full responsibility for my actions, for my shortcomings, for my faults. I am working on them daily.”

And you can expect to see his bearded, bespectacled countenance roaming the streets of San Francisco on the side of your nearest Muni bus until the first week of November, when the ad campaign ends, according to the SFMTA.