Partner Reflection: David Tracey

By David Tracey, Firm Managing Partner | June 2024

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP: Twenty Years of Public Interest Litigation

Can a private firm be a fierce advocate for the public interest? For twenty years, Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, has answered that question with an emphatic, “yes!”

During that time, our firm has grown into one of the largest in the country solely devoted to public interest cases. We have focused our efforts on matters that promote civil rights, workers’ rights, and corporate accountability. In so doing, we have secured industry-changing victories against some of the most powerful corporations in the world.

Yet, in that same period, we have also witnessed a vast retrenchment in access to justice, a rise in forced arbitration, and widespread assaults on fundamental rights. The great legislative and courtroom achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and Labor Movement are ever under threat.

The firm’s twentieth anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on our model and our methods, and evaluate why we continue to insist—even in the current context—that “ yes!,” private firms play a pivotal role in promoting the public interest.

The Statutory Background: Private Lawyers as Public Advocates

Let’s start with the laws we enforce. In many of our practice areas—civil rights, workers’ rights, corporate accountability—Congress has declared the public import of the laws we enforce. Such laws are, among other things, “necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers,” and “affected with a national public interest.”

As a result, Congress has passed laws specifically designed to encourage private plaintiffs to vindicate their rights. In each of our practice areas, Congress created “private rights of action,” which allow for private lawsuits for injustices like employment discrimination and overtime violations. Moreover, Congress also authorized “fee shifting,” which allows successful plaintiffs in these cases to have the defendants pay their legal fees.

Fee shifting is one of Congress’s ways of affirming the public import of private lawsuits. As the Supreme Court explained in the civil rights context, “When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it was evident . . . that the Nation would have to rely in part upon private litigation as a means of securing broad compliance with the law.” Thus, “Congress . . . enacted the provision for counsel fees . . .to encourage individuals injured by racial discrimination to seek judicial relief.”

The same rationale applies in Sanford Heisler Sharp’s other practice areas, such as overtime violations, whistleblower protections, and retirement security. Congress passed “fee shifting” provisions to encourage private plaintiffs to vindicate the public purposes of these statutes. For twenty years, that has been exactly what our firm has set out to do.

How We Do It: Zealously Representing Individuals and Classes

As litigators and trial attorneys, the lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp have traditionally promoted the public interest through the cases we bring. We represent clients in both individual matters and class actions. In each case, we represent clients who, in some way, have been harmed by a systemic injustice. By zealously fighting for our client’s interests, we also simultaneously promote the public interest.

To see how this plays out in an individual case, let’s take the case of illegal retaliation. In our retaliation cases, our clients have often lost their jobs after complaining about illegal conduct (like discrimination or wage violations or fraud) in their workplaces. The laws against retaliation protect these individuals. Yet retaliation remains stubbornly persistent. When we represent workers with retaliation claims, our primary goal is to get them compensation for their lost wages and their emotional and reputational harm. But when we do that successfully, we also necessarily make an impact on the employer and take a stand against the power imbalances that enable retaliation. Effective private advocacy serves a public purpose that can make a difference, perhaps incremental but still necessary, in the workplace.

In class cases, the public impact is perhaps even more apparent. In those cases, we represent clients who are challenging illegal policies and practices that affect large groups of people. Our class actions have included cases against employers who allegedly discriminate against female employees in pay and promotion; mismanage retirement plans affecting hundreds of thousands of workers; and engage in widespread wage theft, denying thousands of workers overtime wages. The stakes in these cases are wide-reaching. As a result, the firm has been able to recover significant financial awards for workers and achieve programmatic relief that changes the defendants’ practices.

Multifaceted Advocacy to Promote Civil Rights, Workers’ Rights and Corporate Accountability

Sanford Heisler Sharp’s advocacy does not start and stop with litigation. As a group of professionals deeply committed to the public interest, we pursue multi-pronged strategies to promote civil rights, workers’ rights, and corporate accountability. Thus, in addition to litigation, our firm is committed to policy advocacy, collaborating with non-profits and community organizations, and educating the public through traditional and social media.

Each of these methods—litigation, policy advocacy, collaboration, and education—is mutually reinforcing. Our litigations enforce the law and develop precedent. Our policy advocacy, often through public comment on legislation and regulations, helps create new and stronger laws. Our collaborations with organizations ensure that we are supporting broader social movements. And our education efforts, especially through the media, allow us to teach the broader public about the systemic issues our clients face and the need for change.

Our multi-faceted approach is yet another example of the way in which, as a private firm, Sanford Heisler Sharp dedicates its efforts to promoting the public interest.

Sanford Heisler Sharp: A Thriving Private Public Interest Model

“Yes!” As our firm’s history and present attest, a private firm can thrive by pursuing the public interest. We do this by enforcing laws that Congress deemed in the public interest; by representing individuals and classes confronting systemic injustice; and by engaging in multi-faceted advocacy. The work is undeniably challenging, but it is also undeniably rewarding. What is clear is that private firms like ours can and do serve as a pillar in our nation’s public interest infrastructure. It is a honor and privilege to play that supporting role.

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