LEGAL TIMES: What influenced you to start your own firm?
DAVID SANFORD: The primary impetus for doing my own thing is the great autonomy one has to do whatever one wants to do. You can take on whatever case and not have to answer to anyone but oneself and one’s partners. Ultimately, if you are successful, you can continue to do whatever you want to do.
Right now we have a firm that still focuses on civil rights matters and employment discrimination. We have cases throughout the United States — class actions, multiparty matters, individual matters. We have wage-and-hour suits, typically on behalf of low-paid earners. We also have a good number of lawyers focusing on qui tam work.
LT: What did Velez v. Novartis mean for the firm, its clients and yourself?
SANFORD: It was a significant case in the history of class action litigation. Very few historically have gone to trial, in part because so many of them settle and in part because trial management is a complicated issue for courts. Courts are overburdened. The idea of having a two-month trial while you have 300-plus active cases, a criminal docket and a lot of other things is not something that most judges would welcome.This was a case that we litigated for seven years and, for a variety of reasons, culminated in a two-month trial. Most notably for me, it is a good example of how to manage a class case, both from the perspective of the clients, the counsel but perhaps especially for the court.
More important than that was the outcome. From our side of things, the outcome vindicated the rights of thousands of people. There were systemic problems that we alleged were evident in Novartis’ pay and promotional practices. The United Nations recognized the Novartis case as one of the top 10 cases in the world to vindicate female rights and gender equality. It was the only case recognized in the United States. It serves as a model for what’s possible. For all those reasons, Novartis turned out to be an exceptionally important case.
LT: What other cases have proved important for you?
SANFORD: I was class counsel in a case against Cracker Barrel. We represented the NAACP as well as many African-American employees and African-American customers alleging race discrimination. We developed evidence in litigation that showed that Cracker Barrel had trained its hostesses to mark [on the sign-in sheet] who was African-American and who was white. Quite often, they would seat the white folks first even if the black folks had been waiting longer. They would seat the African-Americans in what they called the back of a house, behind a screen…out of sight.
There was a lot of evidence that developed during the course of that litigation which suggested that this was not just a random occurrence, but something that was really a systemic problem.
Ultimately, the Department of Justice investigated that case. We had given the department over 400 witnesses in over 200 cities in 31 states. They determined our allegations were truthful and compelling. For the only time during the [George W.] Bush administration, the administration actually intervened in a class action civil rights matter. Once the Bush administration intervened, the case settled. But that was after five years of litigation.