About Us: Our Mission, History and Practice

Sanford Heisler Sharp is a public interest law firm with a nationwide presence. We are a team of passionate attorneys and staff who share a commitment to social justice, civil rights, diversity, inclusion, and accountability. Our lawyers’ goal is to create a positive impact not only in the lives of the individual clients they represent but also society as a whole. They are proud to stand on a proven record of success in doing so.

If you have suffered injustice of any kind, we encourage you to reach out. You deserve a voice in the legal system. You deserve to be heard. You deserve experienced guidance and advocacy. Our attorneys can help you hold wrongdoers accountable and make a meaningful difference to prevent others from suffering the same harm that you have experienced.

What Sets Us Apart

As a public interest law firm, we are firmly rooted in promoting the public good and empowering those who would otherwise remain voiceless. This distinction sets us apart from profit-focused firms.

Our lawyers’ outstanding work has earned us numerous awards and accolades. We have consistently ranked among the top litigation firms in the country, earning numerous professional distinctions, such as:

  • The 2023 Silicon Review 50 Most Admired Companies of the Year (2023)
  • The National Law Journal Elite Trial Lawyers’ Civil Rights Firm of the Year (2022)
  • The National Law Journal Elite Trial Lawyers’ Employment Rights Firm of the Year (2021)
  • The National Law Journal Elite Trial Lawyers’ Human Rights Firm of the Year (2021)
  • The National Law Journal Elite Trial Lawyers in Employment Law and Discrimination (2019)

Many of our lawyers have earned individual awards in their areas of practice as well.

We value diversity and inclusion, and our team reflects that value. We have been ranked as one of the best firms in the nation for minority attorneys, female partners and female attorneys by Law360.

How We Make a Difference

We were founded on a dedication to seeking justice for wrongs that significantly impact the lives of individuals, groups and communities – particularly those who are disempowered. Our attorneys’ work has helped shed light on illegal, unethical and discriminatory practices across many industries nationwide.

Taking a Stand Against Illegal Employment Practices

Our lawyers represent employees in individual and class action claims involving employment discrimination, wage and hour claims, retaliation, wrongful termination and whistleblower cases, among others. Their work spans numerous industries and institutions in both the public and private sectors. As one recent client noted: “This firm has proven again and again it has the necessary talent, experience, intelligence, creativity, and resources to represent workers and whistleblowers successfully against the country’s largest employers.”

Our team’s work in this area includes a record-breaking $253 million verdict against Big Pharma for gender and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. One of our founding attorneys also secured a landmark $8.7 million settlement against the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain for racially discriminatory practices.

Exposing Wrongdoing Through Whistleblower and Qui Tam Claims

Our team gives whistleblowers a voice in the legal system, protecting and empowering them to take courageous action in holding wrongdoers accountable. Our lawyers’ experience includes prosecuting whistleblower and qui tam cases involving numerous federal agencies.

In one high-profile case, for example, our attorneys recovered $3 billion in fines and penalties as part of a multi-agency investigation of a Wells Fargo “fake account” scandal. Our whistleblower client received the highest possible whistleblower award under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) program.

Securing Accountability Through Financial Services Litigation

Our lawyers handle cases involving mismanagement of funds, breach of fiduciary duty, investor abuse and other injustices in the financial services sector, with a special focus on violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Our team’s outstanding results in this area include a $61 million settlement in an ERISA class action against General Electric (“GE”).

Empowering Survivors Through Criminal and Sexual Violence Litigation

Our team stands by survivors in cases involving sexual assault, child sexual abuse, Title XI violations, sex trafficking, gender-based violence and other criminal misconduct. By seeking justice through the civil legal system, our attorneys add another layer of accountability beyond simply holding individual wrongdoers accountable. Their work helps address the systemic, institutional and societal shortcomings that contribute to horrendous acts of sexual abuse and violence. For example, they obtained a $14 million verdict against Dartmouth College in a Title IX class action involving pervasive sexual harassment.

Making a Difference Through Public Interest Litigation and Advocacy

Wherever there is injustice, our team is committed to fighting for what’s right. Our nationwide public interest practice includes litigation on behalf of over 70 cities and counties to prosecute claims related to the opioid epidemic. Our lawyers have also handled large-scale anti-sex trafficking cases and prisoners’ rights litigation. Additionally, our team has been involved in significant efforts toward criminal justice reform.

Serving Asian American Communities, Entrepreneurs and Startups

We are the nation’s first public interest law firm with a dedicated practice group for serving the Asian American community, including in employment and whistleblower matters.

Our attorneys also advise entrepreneurs, companies and startups in Silicon Valley and China on regulatory compliance under U.S. laws.

Our Team: Award-Winning Legal Talent

Since opening our doors in New York and Washington, D.C., our attorneys have recovered more than $1 billion for individual clients and the United States government. They stand on a strong and unparalleled record of success in contributing to systemic improvements in corporate America.

Our team has grown exponentially in the past decade and now comprises about 100 employees, with more than 60 attorneys, in offices throughout the United States. Currently, we have 24 partners across our offices. Throughout our history, our team has been proud to attract and retain some of the very brightest and most passionate attorneys in the nation.

Our Beginnings

In 2004, David Sanford and Jeremy Heisler founded Sanford Heisler Sharp in an effort to litigate public interest and social justice cases that make a significant difference in society. David has served as lead counsel in more than 50 class actions and numerous qui tam fraud cases; he has represented over 100 general counsel, in-house counsel and lawyers in claims against their law firms and companies.

Over the course of his 42-year legal career, Jeremy has achieved notable success in employment, civil rights, and consumer class actions and complex multiparty and multistate litigation, producing tens of millions of dollars in benefits to class members and individuals.

In 2004, when David and Jeremy started their journey, Grant Morris joined them as of counsel, a role that he has held since that time.

Our Steady Growth

In 2007, Andrew Melzer joined our team and has co-chaired its Wage and Hour practice group since 2015.

In 2011, we opened our office in San Francisco. It is now managed by Qiaojing Ella Zheng, who chairs our Asian American Litigation and Finance practice group.

In 2015, we opened another California office, in San Diego. This location is now managed by Charles Field, who chairs the Financial Services Litigation practice group.

In 2016, Vince McKnight, who has co-chaired our Whistleblower practice since 2013, became managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office. He is now co-managing partner.

In 2017, we opened our Nashville office when Kevin Sharp stepped down as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee and became one of our named partners. Kevin now serves as our co-vice chairman. He has played a key role in advocacy efforts to free Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist who has been wrongly imprisoned since 1977.

In 2018, we opened our Baltimore office.

Also in 2018, Russell Kornblith became managing partner of the New York office. He is now our general counsel.

In 2019, we officially established our Asian American Litigation and Finance practice group, becoming the first public interest law firm in the United States with a dedicated practice group that serves the Asian American community. This practice group is led by Qiaojing Ella Zheng.

In 2020, we announced the promotion of eight new partners across our offices, with four women and four people of color being elevated to that role. Those promoted include:

  • John McKnight, who co-chairs our Whistleblower practice group
  • Christine Dunn, who co-chairs our Sexual Violence, Title IX and Victims’ Rights practice group
  • David Tracey, who co-chairs our Public Interest Litigation practice group and now serves as firm managing partner
  • Qiaojing Ella Zheng, who chairs our Asian American Litigation and Finance practice group.

Michael Palmer, who has co-chaired our Wage and Hour practice group since 2015, is now managing partner of our New York office.

In January 2022, we promoted Leigh Anne St. Charles to partner, and she became the managing partner of our Nashville office.

In 2023, we promoted Carolin Guentert and Jonathan Tepe to partner, and Nicole Wiitala as managing partner of legal personnel and co-ombudsperson. And we brought on more partners:

Our Bright Future

As we continue to expand our practice areas and promote attorneys to the partner level, we also continue to attract the best and brightest lawyers from the nation’s best law schools. We have built out our infrastructure by establishing a formidable operations sector led by Alec Konstantin and an experienced human resources group led by Erika Rigsby.

We also attract the highest-caliber legal assistants, all of whom have graduated near the top of their classes at the most competitive colleges and universities around the country.

Our Firm’s History of Success: Case Highlights

Our team has recovered:

  • Hundreds of millions of dollars for workers
  • Tens of millions of dollars for attorneys who have suffered discrimination, retaliation and harassment at work
  • Tens of millions of dollars for professors and students who have brought discrimination claims against their colleges, universities and high schools
  • Over $1 billion for the U.S. government in False Claims Act (qui tam) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) whistleblower matters

The following are some representative case examples.

2004

Settled a race discrimination class action against the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. Our clients included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and employees and customers of Cracker Barrel. It was the only race discrimination case in which the George W. Bush administration intervened. The case settled for more than $8 million.

2005

Settled a race discrimination class action brought on behalf of Marc Thomas and a class of African American employees. Mr. Thomas was the former CEO of General Electric Aviation Materials. The case settled on confidential terms after two years of litigation.

2007

Settled a gender discrimination class action brought on behalf of female sales employees of Sanofi Aventis Pharmaceuticals. The class brought claims of pay and promotion gender discrimination. The case settled for more than $15.4 million.

Settled a gender discrimination class action brought on behalf of Lorene Schaefer, former general counsel of General Electric Transportation; a class of female attorneys; and a class of female executive employees. The case settled on confidential terms after two years of litigation.

2009

Settled a wage and hour overtime class action against C&S Wholesale Grocers for $14 million.

2010

Secured the largest employment discrimination verdict in United States history. Our team represented a class of about 7,000 female sales representatives with claims of gender, pay, promotion and pregnancy discrimination against Novartis Pharmaceutical Corporation. The jury found Novartis liable and awarded the plaintiffs $253 million. The case settled post-trial for $175 million, which included injunctive relief valued at approximately $22.5 million.

2011

Negotiated a $99 million settlement on behalf of sales representatives of Novartis Pharmaceuticals for failure to pay overtime – after securing a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversal of summary judgment against the employees.

Settled a case involving a young African American man and father of two who died in custody due to complications from sickle cell anemia. The estate and family alleged that Sonoma County jail personnel and medical staff as well as outside medical providers neglected to provide proper care and treatment over the course of more than one week and allowed him to die of severe dehydration, a well-known and preventable risk of sickle cell disease. The case fully settled after a one-month trial against certain defendants.

In 2011, David Sanford spoke at the United Nations on the Novartis gender discrimination case. The United Nations recognized the Novartis matter as being among the top 10 cases worldwide in furthering women’s rights.

2012

Settled overtime class action matters against AT&T for $28 million, resolving cases in California, Connecticut and Georgia.

Settled a qui tam case against Amgen alleging violations of the False Claims Act by promoting off-label drug use and illegal kickbacks to promote sales for $762 million. The settlement included a $612 million civil settlement, a $14 million forfeiture and $136 million in criminal fines.

2013

Settled a whistleblower case against Omnicare for $120 million. The case involved alleged violations of the Medicare Anti-Kickback Statute and the False Claims Act.

2014

Achieved an $11.3 million settlement against Smith & Nephew in a qui tam (False Claims Act) case. Our team had previously litigated a class action race discrimination case against Smith & Nephew that settled for $4 million in 2009.

Negotiated a $68 million settlement under the California False Claims Act against Office Depot in a case that involved allegations of overcharging over 1,000 government agencies for office and classroom supplies.

Secured a $5.1 million settlement against Meridian, a health care company specializing in the management of ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs), for alleged violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute and False Claims Act. Our client alleged that Meridian offered and paid remuneration to physicians of an ASC in order to secure patient referrals for services paid for by Medicare.

2016

Secured the release of Albert Woodfox from solitary confinement. Mr. Woodfox, along with two others, challenged the constitutionality of being held in solitary confinement for more than four decades (since 1972). Mr. Woodfox was granted habeas corpus (his conviction was found to be unconstitutional), and, in February 2016, he was released from prison after serving more time in solitary confinement than any prisoner in U.S. history.

Settled a gender discrimination class action against Alcon Pharmaceuticals for $8 million.

Filed a $100 million gender discrimination class action claim on behalf of female employees at the law firm of Chadbourne & Parke LLP, the first of several claims against Big Law. The suit ultimately settled for more than $3 million.

2017

Settled a gender discrimination class action for female tech workers against Qualcomm for $19.5 million, and an additional $4 million in comprehensive programmatic relief.

Won one of the largest jury verdicts and monetary awards in a Title IX case in U.S. history on behalf of women’s basketball coach Beth Burns. Coach Burns brought a wrongful termination and retaliation suit against San Diego State University, alleging that she was terminated after she raised complaints about gender equity in athletics. A jury awarded coach Burns $3,356,250 in damages following a four-week trial.

Settled, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Services of Central New York, a case that challenged the constitutionality of locking youth in solitary confinement and depriving them of educational services required by law. As a result of the settlement, the jail could no longer use 23-hour-per-day solitary confinement for juveniles and was required to ensure access to educational instruction and special educational services.

Settled a gender discrimination class action against Forest Laboratories, recovering $4 million on behalf of female pharmaceutical sales representatives who alleged that they were paid less than their male counterparts.

Negotiated a $5.5 million settlement on behalf of Google employees who alleged that they were denied overtime compensation and were not given accurate wage statements.

Filed a $300 million gender discrimination lawsuit against Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., one of the country’s largest employment defense law firms. The suit shed light on unfair pay and unequal opportunities for female attorneys.

2018

Won the first #MeToo trial in United States federal court when a jury returned a verdict for Enrichetta Ravina against Columbia University in her gender-based retaliation claims.

Achieved a $23.5 million settlement under the False Claims Act against medical device company Medtronic for violations involving allegations of an illegal kickback scheme.

Settled an ERISA class action against Eaton Vance for $3.45 million. Our team, on behalf of the class, alleged that Eaton Vance filled its 401(k) plan with expensive, poorly performing funds that earned fees for the company but deprived employees of millions of dollars in retirement savings.

Obtained a $14.25 million settlement on behalf of women in a class action lawsuit against Rabbi Bernard Freundel and multiple religious organizations. Rabbi Freundel was convicted of voyeurism for secretly filming more than 150 women in ritual baths.

2019

Achieved a $20 million trial verdict on behalf of 22 victims in a case against the entity Girls Do Porn. The 22 women were manipulated and defrauded by the owners and operators of the pornography website.

Negotiated a settlement of over $2 million on behalf of the former CEO of the Nashville International Airport, who was terminated while on medical leave to receive life-saving cancer treatment.

2020

Settled a Title IX class action lawsuit against Dartmouth College on behalf of current and former female graduate and undergraduate students within the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences who alleged that, for years, the school had turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and assault by three professors. In addition to a court-approved monetary settlement of $14 million, Dartmouth agreed to robust programmatic relief valued at $1.5 million.

Together with our co-counsel, settled a class action against Gateway Plaza, a large residential apartment complex in New York City, for $10 million. During the action, the defendants also made millions of dollars in structural changes and improvements designed to address the issues raised by the suit. The class alleged violations of implied warranty of habitability as a result of not adequately heating apartments during the winter months or cooling apartments during the summer months. The class claimed that these problems were caused by structural and other defects in the apartment units and that residents were required to consume excessive amounts of electricity to compensate for the defects.

Settled an age discrimination class action against Volkswagen on behalf of more than 700 auto workers following a successful challenge to the company’s arbitration agreement. The class alleged that Volkswagen engaged in a company-wide policy of age discrimination designed to phase out older workers. The settlement included significant injunctive relief, requiring the company to make changes to its hiring, promotion, management training, and complaint and investigation procedures, as well as undisclosed terms of settlement on behalf of individual workers.

Our lawyers represented the former executive vice president and chief security officer of Wells Fargo who assisted the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), SEC and Department of Justice (DOJ) to recover $3 billion in fines and penalties arising out of the Wells Fargo “fake account” scandal. To date, our client has received a $1.6 million award from the DOJ, the highest possible whistleblower award under the FIRREA program.

2021

Settled a False Claims Act case against Navistar for $50 million stemming from allegations that Navistar forged invoices and other data during the negotiations of a multibillion-dollar defense contract.

Won an $8.3 million arbitration award for a Chinese American executive who co-founded a semiconductor company based in both Silicon Valley and China. He was defrauded by his co-founder and wrongfully deprived of his promised equity stake in the company that he helped create.

Received final court approval for its $5.4 million settlement against Transamerica. The class alleged that the Transamerica plan’s fiduciaries retained several poorly performing investment options for the plan.

Received preliminary approval for a $13.75 million settlement against Walgreens. Walgreens was alleged to have mismanaged retirement funds by failing to remove from its employee retirement plan a suite of 10 target retirement date funds that have underperformed their performance benchmarks for nearly a decade.

Negotiated and received preliminary approval for a $2.1 million settlement on behalf of a class of less than 100 sales employees at an Alaska telecom company who alleged that they were misclassified as exempt from overtime.

Settled an Anti-Kickback and False Claims Act lawsuit against Roche and Humana companies on behalf of a whistleblower who alleged that defendants had an illegal arrangement to get Roche diabetes products on Humana’s Medicare Advance formulary, defrauding taxpayers. The defendants agreed to pay $12.5 million to settle the government’s claims, from which the whistleblower recovered $3.6 million.

Secured approval of a $7.75 million settlement against Western Digital Corporation. The plaintiff’s complaint, which was settled before it was even filed, alleged gender discrimination in pay and promotions.

2022

Represented Young Lee in an appeal asserting violations of crime victims’ rights. Young is the brother of murder victim Hae Min Lee, whose case was featured in an HBO documentary and the podcast “Serial.”

2023

Obtained a $22.865 million settlement in a whistleblower case against International Vitamin Corporation for fraud and tax evasion.

Secured a $1.2 million jury verdict in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of Graham Chase Robinson in her gender discrimination and retaliation case against her former employer, Canal Productions.

2024

Settled a decades-long class action lawsuit against the U.S. Marshals Service in Fogg v. Garland for racial discrimination against African Americans.

Reached a $61 million settlement – perhaps the largest ever in an ERISA case – in a class action against General Electric Company for breach of fiduciary duty in mismanagement of the General Electric Retirement Plan.

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