Partner Reflection: Charles Field

By Charles Field, San Diego Managing Partner | March 2024

“More than a group of talented lawyers, what distinguishes SHS within the plaintiffs’ bar is its pride, its commitment to excellence, and its desire to leave a positive impact on society.” – Charles Field

After my 25-year career in the investment management business came to an end, I was searching for a new path to apply my career knowledge for a better social purpose. It was fortuitous that a friend arranged for me to have lunch with David Sanford in San Diego. Looking for new ways to innovate, our conversation quickly turned to how we could marry employment law and investments as a way that advanced social justice for those saving for retirement. It was there that Sanford Heisler Sharp‘s ERISA practice was born.

At the time, most ERISA cases focused on retirement plans with high fees. However, by targeting fees, these cases missed the bigger picture – poor investment performance. While fees may have an incremental impact on a plan, it was bad investment options that truly robbed employees of their retirement savings. Tens of millions of dollars were at stake. I decided to set our sights on poor performance.

But cases of this magnitude require teamwork. As luck would have it, David Tracey, now the Firm Managing Partner, joined the ERISA practice group. David is a brilliant lawyer who has the temperament to work with issues that are both nuanced and complex. Another outstanding lawyer, Leigh Anne St. Charles, now the Nashville Managing Partner, joined shortly thereafter. Leigh Anne is very determined; “quit” does not enter into her thinking. With David’s brilliance, Leigh Anne’s tenacity, and my knowledge of investments, we made a formidable team. We were determined to fight the good fight and change the way companies managed their plans’ investment options.

The ERISA practice group found success across the country for plans marred by poor performance. Our first settlement was for $3 million – a modest start but an absolute thrill to notch a clear win. A $7 million settlement with Transamerica was soon followed by a nearly $14 million settlement with Walgreens. In 2023, after six years of protracted litigation, SHS settled a case against General Electric for $61 million, the largest ERISA settlement involving in-house funds.

As of December 2023, SHS has seven active ERISA class actions pending against some of the largest corporations in America, including UnitedHealth Group, Allstate, and Home Depot. In our quest to achieve social justice in the retirement space, SHS has invested millions of dollars in time and expenses and has represented over 1,000,000 class members. Over 20 lawyers from 5 SHS offices are devoted to these cases.

I take great pleasure in watching talented lawyers, after discovering ERISA for the first time, attack issues novel to them with curiosity and enthusiasm. Recently, a young Associate, Chris Owens, teamed up with the Firm Administrative Partner, Kate Mueting, to formulate a novel case against X (formerly known as Twitter) which opens the possibility that ERISA, and all its safeguards, applies to companies’ severance plans. The benefit to employees could be enormous.

It has also been satisfying to see our achievements being reported by major news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Pensions and Investments, and others. Investment News spotlighted SHS as one of two law firms that “are playing the long game and seeking high settlements.” I have appeared on CNBC to discuss ERISA, and Law360 often seeks my insights and commentary on ERISA cases of significant importance.

As I reflect, it’s been a joy to collaborate with a group of talented lawyers to build the SHS ERISA practice from the ground up. More than a group of talented lawyers, what distinguishes SHS within the plaintiffs’ bar is its pride, its commitment to excellence, and its desire to leave a positive impact on society. Taking on and prevailing against powerful interests has had a profound impact on my life. Every day, I am challenged and inspired to push beyond my creative limits.

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