Posted January 17th, 2020.
By Braden Campbell
Law360 (January 17, 2020, 1:36 PM EST) — Plaintiff-side powerhouse Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP continued to deliver results for workers in disputes with big-name employers including Dartmouth College, Merck and Western Digital Corp. last year, earning itself a spot among Law360’s 2019 Employment Groups of the Year.
In addition to striking multimillion-dollar deals with these fearsome foes in 2019, the firm launched a high-profile sex bias suit against legal giant Jones Day and teamed up with the U.S. Department of Justice to punish a New York contractor that defrauded the government and underpaid workers on two federal construction projects.
“It was a great year,” Chairman and co-founder David Sanford told Law360.
The New York-based firm achieved a massive settlement for a class of female graduate students and other student-employees at Dartmouth, which agreed to pay $14 million to end the Title IX class action. The deal also requires the school to pay $1 million into a diversity recruitment fund, fill out an advisory committee overseeing an initiative to curb sexual harassment and increase its support for WISE, a network for victims of sexual violence.
The suit, which accused the school of sheltering a “predators club” of psychology professors who sexually harassed and assaulted aspiring academics, was a personal one for attorney Deborah Marcuse, who pursued a career in academia before pivoting to law. Marcuse, who earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University, recalled the power professors have over their charges, whose careers they can make or break.
“Your adviser is responsible for you and controls you and your work and your life and your future prospects in a way that is truly singular,” Marcuse said.
The firm in August filed a motion to approve the class action settlement, which Marcuse said she expects will be granted.
“I am hopeful in this case that it has brought and will continue to bring not just positive developments within the institution … but also within the broader profession [of academic study],” Marcuse said. She noted this change appears to have begun: Shortly after the firm filed suit last year, hundreds of members of the global academic community pledged to support the Dartmouth students and other victims of predatory advisers.
The Dartmouth case was one of several big sex discrimination cases the firm resolved last year, along with a suit accusing hard drive maker Western Digital Corp. of underpaying more than 1,000 women and passing them over for promotions.
Along with local law firm Desai Law, Sanford Heisler attorneys sued Western Digital in California federal court in May alleging its male-dominated leaders favored other men, perpetuating gender-based gaps in pay and promotion. In September, the firms asked the court to approve a $7.75 million settlement that also requires the company to overhaul its performance analysis process and proactively hire more women and promote them to leadership positions.
“The total is $7.75 million, which is obviously an exceptional result, especially as class settlements are shrinking,” said attorney Russell Kornblith. He noted the deal, which is awaiting final approval, provides class members an average of more than $3,000 each after subtracting fees and expenses.
And in July, the firm won preliminary approval of a $6.2 million deal in a suit alleging Merck discriminated against a class of about 3,000 women through its use of a salary grade structure that disadvantaged female sales representatives. A New Jersey federal judge granted the deal final approval in December.
In addition to its traditional employment practice involving representation of workers in wage and discrimination suits, the 56-attorney firm boasts a thriving whistleblower practice. These aspects of the firm met last year when it brought suit against builder Nagan Construction.
The case involved allegations that Nagan violated wage laws, so the firm initially sought to tackle it from a traditional employment angle. But after that plan proved not to be viable, the firm turned to the False Claims Act, which lets workers and others blow the whistle on contract fraud against the government.
“Nagan Construction had contracts with state and federal government, and those contracts required the company to pay its employees a prevailing wage … as well as to follow other wage laws, so we filed a case alleging they had defrauded the government by agreeing to comply with these wage laws when they were not doing so,” said Inayat Ali Hemani, who worked on the case with Marcuse.
Hemani and Marcuse worked closely with the DOJ and the New York State attorney general’s office en route to state and federal settlements totaling more than $830,000, with about $240,000 going to the underpaid workers, and about $160,000 going to the worker who blew the whistle.
Sanford Heisler has also become one of the go-to firms for lawyers claiming discrimination, and in April it brought a high-profile sex discrimination case against Jones Day. The suit alleges the firm systematically underpays women through a secretive compensation structure and that it marginalizes pregnant women and moms.
Kornblith, who is also involved in the Jones Day litigation, said it represents a formidable challenge. But Sanford Heisler isn’t backing down.
“Obviously, Jones Day is a firm of substantial resources, and it is a leader in defendants’ employment work,” Kornblith said. “At the same time, I think we’ve proven as a firm that we are not afraid of any defendant.”
–Editing by Jack Karp.