It’s tempting to call Sherrie Savett a natural-born leader. First female chair of top-rated litigation firm Berger Montague, lead litigator in a slew of high-profile cases that shaped the law in the securities and qui tam spaces, and a celebrated community leader with extensive philanthropic efforts. She’s a mother of three and grandmother of six, and continues to play competitive tennis.
But as the wise adage goes, leaders aren’t born; they’re made. While Savett had the raw materials of intelligence, vision and drive, she also had formative experiences as a young professional that empowered her towards leadership, including key mentors who gave her early courtroom experience and being handpicked for a specialized leadership program by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
And lead, she has. Her work for the City of Miami in a mortgage discrimination case against several national banks, in which the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that cities had standing under the Fair Housing Act and could therefore sue over discriminatory mortgage lending practices, became a template for other cities to bring similar suits.
Savett also handled a ground-breaking class action case over the 2007 data breach of TJX Companies, the parent of stalwart retail brands such as TJ Maxx, HomeSense and Marshalls, which was the largest data breach at the time with 45 million costumers’ credit and debit card numbers stolen. The settlement, valued at over $200M, contained various forms of relief for class members, including credit monitoring insurance, injunctive relief, and cash compensation for provable losses and time spent attempting to mitigate the harm caused by the breach. It continues to serve as a road map for resolution of other data breach class actions.
Her securities litigation work over several decades includes a slew of high-altitude wins, including the $334M settlements with Rite Aid, its accounting firm and former officers; $94M for shareholders of Fleming Companies, the largest food wholesaler in the U.S.; $70M for a class of investors in a disclosure case against Sotheby’s; and $93M for a class of bond and stock purchasers against insurance behemoth Cigna.
Like any true leader, her own success is only part of the story. Savett is an incredibly active member of her community, serving as a leader in various organizations, including continued work with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, at which she served as president and board chair for several years. She is a frequent lecturer, having taught classes at Stanford Law School and at Penn Law for the past four years.
Savett also remains dedicated to fostering young talent at her firm, Berger Montague. Berger enables young lawyers to get meaningful experience to build their skillsets and careers early on, as Savett experienced herself while a young associate at the firm back in the late ’70s and ’80s.
Lawdragon: Sherrie, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. From your vantage point at the forefront of securities litigation these days, are there any trends in the practice that you’re seeing as a result of the pandemic?
Sherrie Savett: There have been a few cases against companies that are alleged to have made misrepresentations about how advanced they were on their development of the vaccine.
LD: How about in the qui tam space?
SS: In the area of qui tam, because trillions of dollars were given out to the public by the government, there is probably a great deal of fraud involved in the receipt of some of these payments where entities made misrepresentations in their applications for obtaining PPP funds. I have not myself had one of those cases, but I’m informed by various U.S. attorney’s offices that they’re looking for such cases. That’s a hot area in qui tam right now.
Healthcare fraud is always prominent in qui tam litigation. Probably at least 80% of the qui tam cases filed are in the healthcare space and involve Medicare and Medicaid funds. Our national health care system is helped by some of the recoveries in this area, but the frauds are varied and prevalent.
LD: That’s a high percentage just in healthcare.
SS: Healthcare fraud in general is a raging problem in America. There are frauds of every nature involving manufacturing companies, drug companies, drug distribution companies, medical practices and hospitals. In my practice I have seen sophisticated pricing frauds and unlawful kickbacks of many types.
LD: What has kept you busy this past year in the qui tam space?
SS: I’ve been involved in a qui tam case involving grant fraud where a research institution that received large NIH grants for medical research paid a settlement to the United States because the amount of work effort that the scientists put in and charged the government was misrepresented. The government did not get the amount of research it bargained for.
Another case involved a major chain of hospitals, which violated the Medicare standards for admissions and length of stay in these hospitals. That settlement was national in scope because the hospital entity had hospitals all over the country.
LD: Tell me about the case you handled for the City of Miami, and the precedent that was set.
SS: The principle that was established in the Supreme Court was that the Fair Housing Act is quite broad. The decision holds that a city could have standing under it if they could prove that the discrimination proximately caused damage to the city. The decision was significant because it clarified how broad the reach of the Fair Housing Act was and that it could go beyond relief just for borrowers who were discriminated against.
LD: You’re a big advocate for gender parity in the law, and supporting female attorneys. You were the first female chair of your firm and continue to serve on the management committee. Can you tell us about Berger Montague’s approach to equal representation?
SS: I think our firm is completely gender blind, race blind, sexual preference blind. We evaluate individuals based on their talent, drive and character, not race or gender. I’m proud to say we have about 39% women and many of them are our shareholders. We have a diverse firm and are very conscious of maintaining and increasing our diversity.
LD: How about you personally? Where or how did you develop an interest in mentoring others — did you have good mentors when you were coming up? Or a lack of them?
SS: I had a very strong mentor is the founding partner of our firm, David Berger, and that started when I got out of law school. He always gave me tremendous opportunities to excel. Then another founder, H. Laddie Montague Jr, was the chairman of the firm for a long time and also served as a mentor to me. I was very fortunate to have grown up in a firm that nurtured all its lawyers. We worked very hard, but it was a family-like environment. I believe that is a recipe for success.
Of course there were bows and slings along the way, such as men making inappropriate comments to a young woman, coming up in a fierce litigation world, but I was lucky because I had these strong mentors and I was strong-willed myself.
LD: So you’ve been at Berger since you finished law school?
SS: Except for my very first year when I was with another firm. Then I came to Berger my second year and have been there ever since.
LD: So you have a major role in building the firm to what it is today.
SS: I can tell you a story, a vignette of empowerment. It’s a true story from when I was at the firm two or three years, still a very young lawyer.
We had a securities class action against a company called Magic Marker, if you can remember that company, back in the late ‘70s. It involved a pump and dump scheme where a group of fraudsters arranged false transactions to make it appear as if it was a very hot stock. The tremendous volume bloated up the stock price. Then those who were in the scheme dumped it, and the price collapsed.
It was a very unique case and it was before a very tough, excellent judge named Alfred Luongo.
My senior partner David Berger was to argue the two critical motions, the opposition to a motion to dismiss and the class certification motion. I was assisting him to get ready for the hearing. I prepared intensively, I knew every case. I worked with Mr. Berger over two days. On the morning of the hearing, he said to me, “You argue one and I’ll argue the other.” I had never argued in federal court before, especially a dispositive motion.
I did it, I was petrified, but I did it. And I won, and he won, and the case went forward. In the end, we got a very good settlement, large for that time. For me, that was the most empowering experience. I still remember it to this day. The fact that he had so much confidence in me that he let me argue a critical motion shows what a good mentor can do for somebody.
LD: Yes those early experiences can really set a person up for a long, successful career. Does Berger have a formal mentoring program in place to make sure the talented young associates are getting those same sorts of early opportunities? Or what does that structure look like?
SS: Yes, we now have a formal mentoring program and a wonderful team approach to our lengthy, complex cases which normally last several years.
LD: You’re also a very active philanthropist. Can you tell us about some of the groups you’re working with currently?
SS: Thank you, yes, I have nonprofit involvements that are very deep and important to me. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is an important organization that I’ve been involved with for many years. I was the president and chairman of the board from 2011 to 2014, and I continue to be involved with that organization on a high level. I’m currently the campaign chair.
I’m on the national board of a university in Israel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and I’m chairwoman of the local chapter and on the national board of its American Associates. I also serve on the board of the National Liberty Museum, a treasure in Philadelphia, which teaches children and young adults character building and heroism through the telling of stories of heroes, both famous and ordinary.
I’m also involved in an organization called PJ Library that sends Jewish-themed children’s books to children all over the world. Right now they’re sending 650,000 books every month to teach children, and these books emphasize Jewish customs, traditions and universal values. That’s a really fantastic organization. I visited Russia a year and a half ago because they opened a branch in Russia and now publish books in the Russian language. That was very exciting. These high quality children’s books are now being distributed in 21 countries in five continents. I am part of the PJ Library Alliance, which is a group of substantial funders to the organization.
LD: When did you start your philanthropic work? Was it something you did as a younger lawyer or did that come later?
SS: When I was 28 or 29 years old I received a letter from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia that said they had identified me as a future leader, and they invited me on a leadership development trip to Israel.
That really changed my life. I fell in love with Israel and I’ve maintained a very close connection to the Jewish people and Jewish community here in America. It was another experience that empowered me to lead. Years later I became the Federation’s president and board chair.
LD: That program sounds formative. How about your family, growing up? Did your parents encourage you towards being a leader in your community, and pursuing a career?
SS: My mother was a pillar of strength growing up. She is now 95 years old, healthy and vibrant, and very inspiring to me. My father, a war hero who owned a grocery store and worked as a butcher before becoming a lawyer later in life, also always encouraged me to follow my dreams. He told me I could do anything that I desired. That positivity is what I grew up with.
LD: That’s just especially extraordinary for women of that generation for them to be telling their little girls and for your dad, especially, to say, “The sky’s the limit, there’s nothing to hold you back.”
SS: Yes. And I’ve always trained my girls that way and my son, too. One of my daughters is now a lawyer at the firm, and my daughter-in-law, is too. I’m very proud of all of them.