Sanford Heisler Sharp 20th Anniversary Statement

By David Sanford, Chairman, Sanford Heisler Sharp | January 2024

“To give people power, a voice, recognition, and standing they otherwise would not have is truly a gift. Everyone in the firm is responsible for giving that gift to people every day of every year. That is what I am most proud of as the firm moves forward into its third decade.”  – David Sanford

The 20-Year Transformation Into A National Powerhouse

Jeremy Heisler and I started this firm 20 years ago. We started with three attorneys in New York and Washington, D.C. Twenty years later, we have more than 60 attorneys in seven offices (NY, Washington, DC, Palo Alto, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville and Baltimore) and more than 40 members of a most extraordinary staff. With more than 100 people all devoted to prosecuting and resolving cases with social justice and civil rights significance, our firm is now the largest firm in the country doing this critical work.

The Beginning

During the first year of the firm, in 2004, we settled a race discrimination class action, in which we represented the NAACP and a class of African American customers and employees against the Cracker Barrel national restaurant chain. That settlement was the only time in the George W. Bush’s 8-year term as President that the Department of Justice intervened in a civil rights class action. That settlement was reached during the firm’s first year after 5 years of nationwide litigation which began at my prior firm. I took and defended about half of the 80 depositions in the case; reviewed tens of thousands of documents; and prepared scores of witnesses nationwide.

That victory was the first of many major civil rights victories this firm has had during the past 20 years. There is no moral ambiguity to what we do: we take less than 2 percent of over 20,000 potential cases that come to the firm each year. Those cases are righteous cases with clear divisions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, winners and losers.

National Recognition

Not only is our firm the largest, but we have also been nationally recognized as the best firm in the United States in critical respects. For example, the National Law Journal named the firm as the Civil Rights Firm of the Year in 2022, the Employment Rights Firm of the Year in 2021, and the Human Rights Firm of the Year in 2021. Benchmark Litigation recognized the firm as the Labor and Employment Firm of the Year in both 2020 and 2021. And Law360 endorsed the firm as Employment Practice Group of the Year in four recent years.

Benchmark Litigation recently noted: “Most firms would shy away from challenging the most powerful interests in society. Sanford Heisler Sharp has taken on the largest corporations in the world and has succeeded.” We are recognized because we have taken on matters that most firms would not touch, and we have succeeded where others have failed.

Our Success

Judges, mediators, arbitrators, and opposing counsel have all told us that we get superb results for our clients. Clients benefit from that excellence when they choose to have us represent them. When we take a case, we spare no expense and staff each case in a way that gives our clients the greatest chance of success. We oppose some of the largest corporations in America and our legal adversaries are some of the largest law firms in the United States. To win, we must work harder, take more risks, think more creatively, and express more passion and zeal in the difficult arena of litigation and trial.

We are responsible for the largest Title VII trial verdict in U.S. history, for one of the largest Title IX trial verdicts in U.S. history; for one of the largest qui tam recoveries in U.S. history; for one of the largest ER settlements in U.S. history; for some of the most significant injunctive/programmatic relief packages in U.S. history; and for the longest time frame for a certified and settled race discrimination case in U.S. history. All of that is meaningful. Also meaningful is the passion, creativity, intelligence, hard work, attention to detail and team effort involved in each of those results and in everything we do.

Success comes in different ways. The most visible is our trial success. We have won all cases we have tried but for two. The vast majority of all other cases have settled prior to trial. And most of those cases have settled confidentially, quickly, and prior to any public litigation.

We have successfully resolved (pre-suit; in litigation; at trial) well over 90 percent of cases we have taken on these past 20 years. It is doubtful that any other firm in the United States can claim the same record of success.

Who We Are

All of our attorneys could be practicing at the very best defense firms or doing any work they would choose in the law. They have chosen to come to our firm to continue in the tradition of caring most about making a difference in the law and in the world. It is the most cited reason people go to law school; to make a difference in the world. They want to be part of a process that, while complex, risky, labor-intensive, financially costly and uncertain in outcome, gives meaning to a professional life devoted to caring for others, helping individuals turn their lives around, giving them a voice and a sense of empowerment as we guide them through the internecine and often unintelligible bowels of the law.

Our attorneys are among the best, brightest, most talented and diverse attorneys in America: about half of them have clerked for state and federal judges throughout the United States (including the United States Supreme Court); all of them graduated at or near the top of their law school class; about 60% of them are women; and about 40% of them are people of color.

The Abuse We Confront And Defeat

I love being part of a firm that stands as a counterforce to abuse throughout society: the abuse of a powerful employer over a less powerful individual; the abuse of powerful corporations involved in creating, marketing and distributing drugs that incapacitate and kill tens of thousands of our fellow citizens each year; the abuse of people who should be prudent fiduciaries in managing the retirement funds of some of our most economically vulnerable citizens; the abuse of corporations that become merchants of death by selling guns indiscriminately; the abuse of individuals who manifest sexual power over other; the abuse of corporations that defraud the U.S. government out of billions of dollars each year; the abuse rooted in racial and gender stereotypes and animosity; the abuse based in religious bigotry and age discrimination; and the abuse lodged in the demonization of others who do not look the same or act the same or come from the same cultural background.

If we do not do what we do, much abuse would go unaddressed, much injustice would go unredressed, and many wrongs would fester and multiply.

In essence, we act as private attorneys general—acting in effect on behalf of the United States government because the government cannot be everywhere and address every wrong. That is why we get paid by the other side when we win—the government offers fee shifting provisions to incentivize the private bar to do this important work.

We have been most successful at what we do and what we have done these past 20 years because we care about checking abuse where we find it.

And we find abuse everywhere.

  • in prestigious high schools and universities (gender discrimination against Harvard; Dartmouth; Columbia; San Diego State University (trial verdict); Walt Whitman High School; Phillips Exeter Academy; LGBTQ discrimination against NYU; and many others);
  • in the medical profession (gender discrimination, race discrimination and national origin discrimination against the University of Miami, Heart Transplant Program; fraud matter against Omnicare; and many others);
  • in the legal profession (gender discrimination matters against Proskauer; Chadbourne & Parke; Jones Day; Sedgwick; Morrison Foerster; and many others);
  • in the pharmaceutical industry (fraud matter against Amgen (762 million dollar settlement with U.S. Department of Justice); gender discrimination against Novartis (253 million dollar trial verdict); Sanofi-Aventis; Daiichi; and many others);
  • in the biomedical industry (fraud matters against Medtronic; Meridian; Pathway Genomics; and many others);
  • in the United States government (race discrimination against the US Marshals Service (15 million dollar settlement); Angola prison system; NY State prison system; sexual assault in the US Navy and US Marine Corps; and many others);
  • in the financial services sector (ERISA class settlements against General Electric; Walgreen; Eaton Vance; Transamerica; class litigation ongoing against Allstate; Home Depot; United Health; The Capitol Group; Milliman; West Monroe; Twitter; State Farm race discrimination class action relating to its insurance claims processing);
  • in the world of government contracting (Navistar fraud matter resolved with the Department of Justice (50 million dollar settlement); Smith & Nephew fraud matter resolved with the Department of Justice (5.4 million dollar settlement); and many others);
  • in the service sector (Office Depot wage and hour class settlement; Fairfield Resorts gender discrimination and sexual harassment class settlement; Energy Plus consumer class settlement; and many others);
  • in the restaurant and food industry (Cracker Barrel race discrimination class settlement (8.7 million dollars); C&S Wholesale Grocers wage and hour class settlement (over 14 million dollars); Weee! wage and hour class action; and many others);
  • in the entertainment industry (Girls Do Porn trial victory ($22 million dollars) in a sex trafficking and fraud case brought on behalf of 22 individuals; Robert De Niro trial victory in gender discrimination and retaliation case);
  • in the technology industry (Oracle wage and hour class action and PAGA matter);
  • in the religious sector (childhood sexual assault matters against the Baltimore Archdiocese);
  • and in the manufacturing industry (Volkswagen age discrimination class settlement; public nuisance matter we co-counsel with Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national gun violence prevention organization against Polymer 80, a ghost gun manufacturer, and Hanover Armory, a retailer of firearms)

Pro Bono Litigation

The firm historically has committed, and currently continues to commit, enormous pro bono resources to help individuals and entities in cases involving compelling social justice, legal and moral issues. Since the firm’s founding, we have spent millions of dollars prosecuting claims and tens of millions of dollars of our time. For example, in the recent past we have prosecuted or are prosecuting the following matters pro bono.

  • The firm is litigating a due process complaint on behalf of a child with learning disabilities who was wrongfully expelled from KIPP DC School System. This matter has been active since June 2023. Saba Bireda is the lead counsel.
  • The firm represents Young Lee as a Victim Representative in the matter of Adnan Syed. Mr. Syed was convicted of murdering Hae Min Lee 23 years ago. Mr. Syed’s murder conviction was vacated in 2022. We represent Mr. Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, in the appellate process in Maryland State Court.  We won before the Appellate Court and have argued to the Maryland Supreme Court that Mr. Lee’s statutory and constitutional right to speak and challenge evidence should allow him to actively participate in the new evidentiary hearing regarding Mr. Syed. David Sanford is the lead counsel and has worked with partners Jeremy Heisler and Andrew Melzer on the case, as well as former firm attorney Ari Rubin.
  • The firm represents Leonard Peltier, a Native American civil rights activist convicted of murder in the death of two FBI agents during a shootout on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. We are seeking clemency through the White House and compassionate release through the Bureau of Prisons. Kevin Sharp is the lead counsel and has worked with firm attorneys Brent Hannafan, Leigh Anne St. Charles, Kaitlin Leary, David McNamee, Andrew Melzer, Michael Lockman, and Sarah Chu on this matter. They have worked with Holly Macarro (Advance Native Political Leadership), Nick Tilson (NDN Collective), and Fawn Sharp (President, NCAI) to secure Peltier’s release.
  • Manning et al. v. U.S. Army – In 2023, Christine Dunn and Jillian Seymour drafted a letter to the U.S. Department of Defense on behalf of Protect Our Defenders. The issues of the letter include: (1) inquiring about DOD’s current policy on allowing military sexual assault survivors pursue civil claims for their injury; and (2) urging the Department to modify its policy on the ability of servicemembers to file civil claims for injuries stemming from sexual assault. The letter focuses on the need to implement a policy that aligns with the 9th Circuit’s recent decision in Spletstoser v. Hyten, which held that the Feres doctrine does not prevent servicemembers from filing FTCA claims for the sexual abuse they have experienced.
  • The firm submitted a briefing and represented a client at his SSI reconsideration hearing to request reconsideration of a denial of SSI benefits. Danielle Fuschetti is lead counsel.
  • The firm appealed to the United States Circuit Court for the Tenth Circuit an asylum denial. Jeremy Heisler was lead counsel and worked with firm attorneys Russell Kornblith, Jonathan Tepe, Alok Nadig, Cara Van Dorn, and Lucy Zhou. The client was formerly represented by Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. The firm represented the client in proceedings before the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
  • The firm brought a class action complaint challenging bond hearings in Baltimore immigration courts as unconstitutional where a detainee, rather than the government, bears the burden of proving that they are not a flight risk or a danger to the community in order to be freed, and challenging failure to consider detainees’ ability to pay or alternative conditions of release when setting money bond as violating Due Process Clause as well as the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The firm worked with the ACLU, ACLU of Maryland Foundation, and the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.
  • The firm represented Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3 Prison litigation case. David Sanford, along with partners Andrew Melzer and Kate Mueting and other attorneys in the firm, as well as co-counsel Squire Patton Boggs, worked on this case for three years. After three years of litigation in Louisiana, Albert Woodfox was released from prison.
  • The firm represented Eduardo Reyes Ochoa Chis in his successful removal proceedings and affirmative application for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Our Baltimore office attorney Associate Chris Owens was lead counsel.
  • The firm, in partnership with Martin Salas at Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), represented a child who came to the United States from Guatemala as an unaccompanied minor and provided immigration paperwork assistance. Our New York Managing Partner Michael Palmer was lead counsel and worked with firm Staff Attorney Al Powell.
  • The firm represented Nick Sutton, who was convicted of the 1985 murder of a fellow prisoner over a drug dispute and was sentenced to death. Kevin Sharp was lead counsel and advocated for executive clemency of commutation of the sentence to Life without Parole. The Governor of Tennessee refused to commute the sentence and Sutton was executed by electric chair on February 20, 2020.
  • The firm worked with Mobilization for Justice to assist in an investigation into NY OTDA for denying Safety Net Assistance to certain classes of immigrants. OTDA eventually opened up Safety Net Assistance to a broad range of immigrant classes that were previously denied access. David Tracey was lead counsel.
  • The firm represented a low-income non-English speaking woman with gender discrimination and wrongful termination claims against her former employer. They reached a settlement. Cara Van Dorn was lead counsel.

Pro Bono Amicus Briefs

  • Wells Fargo v. Miami – Our partner Saba Bireda submitted an amicus brief related to this case in the Supreme Court.
  • Mach Mining LLC v. EEOC – Our partners Russell Kornblith, Andrew Melzer, and Deborah Marcuse submitted an amicus brief for Women’s Rights Organizations in support of the EEOC.
  • Murray v. UBS – Our Partner and General Counsel Russell Kornblith submitted an amicus brief in the United States Circuit Court for the Second Circuit on behalf of NELA/NY in support of plaintiffs regarding whether plaintiffs’ fee requests were appropriate.
  • Chen-Oster v. Goldman Sachs – Our partners Russell Kornblith and Andrew Melzer submitted an amicus brief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of NELA/NY in support of plaintiffs. The brief argued that the employer’s attempt to impose arbitration on prospective class members during the pendency of a litigation and without adequate disclosure should be invalidated. The case was settled.
  • Obergefell v. Hodges – In 2015, our partners Deborah Marcuse, David Tracey, and Andrew Melzer submitted an amicus brief on behalf of LGBT student organizations at undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools.
  • Young v. UPS – Our Firm Administrative Partner Kate Mueting submitted an amicus brief on whether PDA required accommodating the UPS driver.
  • Andryeyeva v. New York Health Care, Inc. – Our Firm Managing Partner David Tracey submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the firm in support of workers.

Pro Bono Advocacy Work

  • On November 7, 2023, firm attorney Cameron Clevidence and our Firm Managing Partner David Tracey commented on the Department of Labors’ proposed revision of the overtime exemption rules under the Fair Labor Standard Act. The firm advocated for stronger protections for workers in the final rule.
  • On February 23, 2023, firm Senior Litigation Counsel attorney James Hannaway submitted a letter to the Federal Rules Committee on behalf of the firm for the committee to adopt a rule for unified bar admission to all federal district courts.
  • From 2018 to present, our Firm Administrative Partner Kate Mueting has given pro bono consultations to numerous Time’s Up referrals.
  • In 2014, our Firm Administrative Partner Kate Mueting lobbied with Bretta Karp as part of the NELA Lobby Day on Capital Hill regarding forced arbitration. In 2022, our Firm Administrative Partner Kate Mueting supported research regarding confidentiality and NDAs with Lift Our Voices, Gretchen Carlson’s organization.
  • In 2022 and 2023, our Firm Managing Partner David Tracey participated in legislative advocacy with NELA/NY on a variety of bills, including a bill to modify the standard or remittitur and a bill to ban forced labor in NY prisons.
  • In 2023, our Firm Managing Partner David Tracey participated in legislative advocacy supporting the EMPIRE Coalition, which seeks to pass the EMPIRE Act in NY (similar to California’s PAGA).
  • In the past few years, our Firm Managing Partner David Tracey has participated in legislative advocacy through public comment and testimony on:
    • NYC Local Law 144 (algorithmic bias)
    • FTC NPRM re: non-compete ban
    • NY State Non-compete ban
    • NYC bill to ban no-rehire clauses
    • DOE NPRM concerning participation in sports in accordance with one’s gender
    • DOL NPRM re: salary threshold for the EAP exemption and the HCE rule.

In June 2021, firm Senior Litigation Counsel attorney Cara Van Dorn assisted several sex trafficking victims of GirlsDoPorn in preparing to speak at a sentencing hearing. She also assisted about a dozen victims in gathering and submitting the documentation to seek restitution around the same time.

  • In 2023, our partner Janette Wipper advocated for the passing of SB403 with the firm’s Caste Discrimination Working Group to pass the caste discrimination bill in California. Although there was overwhelming approval by both the Assembly and the Senate, the bill was vetoed by the California Governor.

Looking To The Future

As I reflect on the firm’s and our extraordinary attorneys’ accomplishments over the past 20 years, I am renewed with hope and confidence we will continue in the tradition of advocating and representing individuals and classes when civil rights are violated, and social justice demands action. We will inevitably and boldly face new legal ground — and do so with ever-growing experience, fierce commitment, and brilliant solutions, continuing to support those who come to us to successfully fight their battles.

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