Partner Reflection: Jeremy Heisler

By Jeremy Heisler, Co-Vice Chairman, Sanford Heisler Sharp | February 2024

On Sanford Heisler Sharp’s 20th Anniversary: A Passion for Justice, Fortified by Excellence, Leads to an Unmatched Record of Success for the Firm and its Clients
– Co-Vice Chairman, Jeremy Heisler’s Statement

In late 2003, on the eve of SHS’s formation, I was approaching my own milestone — nearly 25 years of legal practice, primarily in litigation. My legal career had begun in 1981, as an Associate at the most prominent plaintiff’s class action firm in the U.S. The firm specialized in securities litigation, suing defendant-corporations on behalf of a public that had been lured into buying shares at inflated prices through deceptively optimistic statements. The lawsuits helped keep corporate America a little more honest (God knows, a socially useful calling). And I learned a lesson that has since survived many dangers, toils, and snares and still lives within me: Litigation can be an instrument to achieve justice for employees, consumers, and shareholders victimized by powerful corporate interests.

I left my first firm in 1987, and after a ten-year detour doing primarily appellate work in state and federal court, I joined up with another lawyer to continue prosecuting class action cases, although vastly different from the brand pursued by my first firm. I was part of a two-person consumer fraud class action firm. We sued mid-sized corporations that victimized equipment lessees with excessive late fees and fraudulent charges. But we were understaffed and underfinanced and vastly outgunned by the defendant companies we sued. As a result, we did not swing for the fences and seek wide-ranging systemic relief; infield hits-small victories-were good enough.

I knew I had to look for something bigger and better to make a difference in social justice litigation.

And so we return to late 2003. As I was searching for that new frontier in social justice litigation, a civil rights attorney named David Sanford was also exploring alternative opportunities in creative lawyering. That alchemy led, on January 4, 2004, to the formation of the direct ancestor of the civil rights firm that this year is celebrating its 20th anniversary — Sanford Heisler Sharp.

Whether our new firm would succeed was of course uncertain, but David and I were both quietly hopeful. While I had an inventory of consumer fraud class actions, David brought with him a storehouse of employment discrimination and civil rights suits. We thought we were more than likely to be moderately successful. What actually happened exceeded our most optimistic assumptions about the new firm. The combination created an explosive synergy which quickly led to success in many different kinds of litigation.

On the employment discrimination front, the Firm represented a former general counsel of General Electric in a gender discrimination suit. We were able to obtain an excellent result for her. A prominent African American executive at a major American corporation retained the Firm, alleging racial discrimination. Again, SHS won a very significant settlement. Additionally, we settled a sexual harassment case on behalf of a number of female employees at a major Florida resort facility.

Success begets further success. Within the Firm’s first eight years, SHS tried a class action gender discrimination case on behalf of Novartis Pharmaceuticals’ female sales representatives. A federal jury returned a $253-million verdict for the class – the largest such result in Title VII history.

After that outcome, the Firm achieved a $99-million settlement for Novartis’s male and female pharmaceutical sales representatives who were denied overtime pay. The amount of the settlement was a near record breaker.

When I consider what marks the firm as special, I travel through the mists of time and think back to my two earlier litigation positions. In contrast to my securities litigation days, where the class plaintiff was a small shareholder, consider a conventional SHS employment matter. A wronged employee is emotionally invested. The employer’s decisions may have wrecked her future job prospects and ruined her life. What she says counts. That kind of plaintiff will be highly focused on the litigation and won’t shy away from giving her opinion on strategies for the lawsuit and goals for a settlement. And her attorneys will listen.

Or, I think back to my micro-sized consumer fraud class action firm. Sanford Heisler Sharp now has seven offices and over 50 attorneys—not to mention several dozen Legal Assistants whose work is critical to the success of the firm’s posticous mission. We have the resources to take on the largest and most powerful corporate miscreants. Economies of scale are real and make a difference.

The Novartis Gender Discrimination and Wage and Hour Cases Exemplify the Firm’s Skills and Accomplishments

Within the Firm’s first eight years, SHS tried a class action gender discrimination case on behalf of Novartis Pharmaceuticals’ female sales representatives. A federal jury returned a $253-million verdict for the class – the largest such result in Title VII history. After that outcome, the Firm achieved a $99-million settlement for Novartis’s male and female pharmaceutical sales representatives who were denied overtime pay. The amount of the settlement was a near record breaker.

The Novartis class actions were all hands-on deck operations. At least 15 attorneys from the Firm – partners and associates – collaborated to win the $253-million verdict, and the $99-million settlement. The quantum of work necessary to shepherd both cases to success was staggering: close to 100 depositions conducted by attorneys throughout the Firm. And briefing was voluminous – more than a dozen class certification and summary judgement briefs in the district court and Second Circuit–briefs that won class certification in the gender case, and the equivalent of summary judgement in the wage and hour suit. The brief writing was a collective effort by the New York and Washington DC offices. SHS’s accomplishments in the Novartis law suits epitomize brilliant, unmatched lawyering.

An Explosion of Creativity and a Record of Success on Many Fronts

SHS was much more than a two-hit wonder, proving itself a powerful fighting force for employees, discrimination and sexual abuse victims and consumers.

The Firm reached successful settlements in a number of wage and hour cases on behalf of “first level managers” who worked for Bell Telephone in the South, California and Connecticut. Through our efforts, the class received $28 million in overtime payments.

The Firm successfully prosecuted class actions on behalf of consumers victimized by bank overcharges on mortgage payments in Binetti v. Washington Mutual Bank and Baldanzi v. Wells Fargo Bank. We defeated the banks’ assertions that the claims were preempted by the National Bank Act and Homeowners’ Loan Act of 1933 (HOLA). (A very similar Preemption issue is now before the United States Supreme Court in Cantero v. Bank of America, N.A., No. 22-529).

A Potpourri of Diverse Litigations Seeking Justice on Behalf of the Powerless

We won a jury verdict for a female employee of famed actor Robert De Niro. The employee had suffered abuse and discrimination at De Niro’s establishment for more than a decade. When she protested her mistreatment, De Niro retaliated. The jury awarded the client a significant sum of money.

In the “Energy Plus” case, SHS secured refunds for energy consumers who were subjected to deceptive and exorbitant electricity bills.

In the “In re Gateway” litigation, we obtained monetary benefits and improved conditions for thousands of tenants who suffered for years with inadequate heat during the winter and lack of air conditioning in the summer at one of New York City’s largest housing developments.

The Firm did not rest on its laurels.

  • SHS added a Qui Tam/Whistleblower department, headed by Vincent McKnight, one of the country’s leading attorneys in that field. SHS has generated millions of dollars in Qui Tam recoveries.
  • Charles Field, a prominent inside counsel, joined SHS and established a 401k and ERISA department. The new department has recovered large awards for pension-retiree class members.
  • In 2018, SHS established a Sexual Violence, Title IX, and Victims’ Rights Working Group. The Working Group, now led by Co-Chairs Christine Dunn and Carolin Guentert, has successfully sought and obtained relief for many survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and gender-based violence. Notably, SHS secured a $14 million settlement for seven women for their sexual harassment and abuse claims against Dartmouth in 2020.
  • In its fight for social justice, SHS Public Interest Litigation Practice has lobbied state legislatures for reforms to expand the rights of employees. We have partnered with other employee advocates – such as the National Employment Lawyers Association (“NELA”) and the Impact Fund – to submit amicus briefs in both trial and appellate courts, including the United States Supreme Court.

Passion Paired with Judgement and Fortified by Excellence

“Passion” is a word very much in fashion these days. But passion by itself is not enough. In litigation, unbridled passion may lead attorneys to self-deceive and overestimate the strengths of their client’s case and blind themselves to the weaknesses that are there for impartial eyes to see. As George Orwell remarked- “sometimes it is a struggle to see what is in front of one’s nose.”

SHS has always evaluated and litigated cases with passion, but not with passion alone. We pair passion with judgment and always make a realistic assessment of whether and to what extent our lawsuits can succeed. We serve our clients best when we give them the benefit of our objective professional judgement honestly and with candor.

A Travel through Time – Twenty-Four-Hundred Years Ago

It may seem strange to end this account of a twenty-year-old law firm by summoning a historical event that reaches back more than twenty-four-hundred years in the past. But history, after all, is the subject of my story, so a longer look back is fitting and proper. In his history of the Peloponnesian wars Thucydides recounts this incident: The powerful Athenians declared war on the helpless Melians and demanded surrender. The Melians appealed to justice. We’ve never wronged the Athenians so why can’t we be left alone? The Athenians responded, “rights are only relevant between equals in power: the strong do as they wish and the weak suffer what they must.”

The mission of SHS these past two decades has been steadfast and unyielding – we fight for justice on behalf of those who have been mistreated by the more powerful. Whether those wielding the power are gigantic multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical corporations, or world-famous actors who believe their fame gives them license to mistreat those they view as weak or defenseless, SHS will be there to fight for justice.

But we not only fight “for,” we also fight against. We fight against the multi-thousand-year mindset that justice belongs only to the powerful so the weak must turn the other cheek. Does might make right? Not if SHS has anything to say about it. And that is why we fight.

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