Sanford Heisler Lures ERISA Litigator From Gibson Dunn

Posted April 11th, 2019.

As It Appeared On

By Kevin Stawicki

Law360 (April 11, 2019, 6:14 PM EDT) — Plaintiff-side powerhouse Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP has nabbed a first-chair trial lawyer from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP with over three decades of experience defending employers like the University of Southern California in Employee Retirement Income Security Act litigation.

Paul Blankenstein, who led Gibson Dunn’s Washington, D.C., office as of counsel and before that was a principal appellate lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Division, joined Sanford Heisler as co-chair of its financial services litigation practice, the firm announced Tuesday.

After three decades representing clients on the defense side, he said it was time to switch.

“I thought it would be interesting to see how the other side lived,” Blankenstein told Law360 on Thursday. “Your obligation to be a zealous advocate doesn’t change but the causes you’re fighting for on plaintiffs side change. I won’t have to bend my views as much to make those representations.”

Blankenstein said he will continue to focus on ERISA litigation, noting that class actions over excessive fees in retirement plans is the “flavor of the day” and that efforts to press plans’ fiduciaries to make sure they have investment options with appropriate expense ratios is a key aspect of those cases.

A slew of cases going after companies for improperly investing workers’ retirement savings in sub-par funds has also been on Sanford Heisler’s docket and will likely end up on Blankenstein’s to-do list, he said. The firm is representing retirees in cases against General Electric Co., Transamerica Corp. and Home Depot Inc.

Before making the jump to the “other side of the ‘v,'” Blankenstein led numerous Gibson Dunn litigation teams, including its representation of the University of Southern California in a closely watched ERISA class action suit leveled by the school’s workers seeking to keep their fiduciary breach case in court as opposed to arbitration.

After the Ninth Circuit ruled that the workers’ claims couldn’t be forced into arbitration because they were suing on behalf of a retirement plan, which had not waived its right to sue, USC asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. USC pushed for a bright-line rule over the arbitrability of ERISA breach-of-fiduciary claims, but the high court declined to take up the case.

“The high court may well need to take this up at some time,” Blankenstein said. “Apparently the court in its wisdom determined the USC case was not an appropriate vehicle for the issues.”

David Sanford, chairman of Sanford Heisler, told Law360 that working against Blankenstein for three years in a case involving a rabbi who surreptitiously taped 153 women in D.C. in a ritual cleansing bath showed off his legal acumen and intelligence.

“It became clear to me that Paul would be ideal to co-chair that practice,” he said.

Sanford Heisler’s hiring of the former Gibson Dunn veteran comes as the firms battle it out in California federal court. Gibson Dunn represents Morrison & Foerster LLP in a pregnancy discrimination class action brought by former MoFo associates who chose Sanford Heisler as their counsel.

Blankenstein isn’t involved in that case.

“It’s not awkward at all,” Sanford said. “In our world, there are about a dozen firms on the other side and Gibson Dunn is a great firm.”

–Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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