Justice for All
Philadelphia-based law firm Sheller, P.C. is known nationwide for its whistleblower and consumer protection practice that has shaped the course of history
by Sharon A. Shaw

At its core, the law is a system of rules that govern a society. Many of us are only concerned with its function when we err—by receiving a traffic ticket, for example—or must rely on it to sort out a personal matter such as divorce or an estate. There is another segment of the law, though, that affects everyone by helping to shape society and protect its members from abuses. It is in this field that Sheller, P.C. operates.

Stephen A. Sheller is the founding partner of Sheller, P.C., a Philadelphia-based national law firm known for its participation in civil-rights cases, class-action lawsuits against tobacco and drug companies and for its role in the 2000 Bush v. Gore postelection proceedings, among many others. It is one of the leading whistleblower, pharmaceutical and medical device product liability and personal-injury law firms in the United States. The firm’s whistleblower cases alone have recovered more than $6 billion for the U.S. government.

It was while instituting litigation in Palm Beach County, Florida, involving butterfly ballots during the 2000 U.S. presidential election that Sheller learned of aggressive and unlawful marketing practices of large pharmaceutical companies. His television appearances in the election case prompted representatives for these companies to confide in him their concerns about potentially illegal company activity. Further investigation revealed “off-label” marketing and misuse of many popular drugs.

One of these is the antipsychotic drug Risperdal and its generic counterpart risperidone. This drug was being marketed to children and the elderly for purposes for which it was not intended, tested or originally FDA approved. Sheller represents hundreds of young boys who have developed gynecomastia—the development of breasts in men and boys—while taking the drug.  Many have needed a mastectomy as a result. At the same time, Sheller, P.C. helped the U.S. government investigate and settle a whistleblower case against pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) for $2.2 billion. “This settlement is especially important because in these cases our most vulnerable populations are being targeted for off-label use,” Sheller says. “These companies are providing misinformation while offering kickbacks to doctors to prescribe these drugs.”

In what may be a first-of-its-kind tactic, in addition to naming the pharmaceutical companies, Sheller is actively pursuing the medical research “ghostwriting” companies who wrote the medical literature that promoted the drugs, alleging that they knew or should have known of the dangerous side effects. Sheller is known for such innovative strategies to achieve justice; it was his idea to pursue a consumer fraud case against Philip Morris, which promoted its light cigarettes as safer when, in fact, they were not. This theory resulted in a $10 billion verdict. Naming the “ghostwriting” company puts corporations on notice that they cannot obscure the risks of drugs by engaging a third party to write supposedly impartial medical articles.

This is only one in a series of large judgments by Sheller, P.C. Most recently, the firm represented clients in a $2.5 billion settlement to compensate patients of the DePuy ASR hip implants. The firm represented several hundred plaintiffs in that litigation. Sheller also served as a lead attorney in several other recent pharmaceutical whistleblower cases, including a $520 million settlement against AstraZeneca, a $2.3 billion settlement against Pfizer Inc. and a $1.4 billion settlement against Eli Lilly & Co. in 2009. These settlements include some of the largest in U.S. history.

Many of these cases were made possible thanks to the pharmaceutical employees who reached out to Sheller, P.C. with information about suspicious activity. As partner Brian J. McCormick Jr. explains, whistleblower statutes reward employees for reporting fraud against the federal or state government and contain protections for employees against retaliation. Sheller, P.C. represented one such employee against J&J to penalize them for marketing efforts by filing a case under the federal False Claims Act—a law established to help the government fight fraud. “In this case the marketing efforts by J&J created a false market for the drug,” McCormick says. “It was marketed to people who it was not intended for and it was, in fact, either not working or in many instances, not safe. This was a ‘blockbuster’ drug, and because Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance was paying for the drug when they should not have been, it cost the government.”

McCormick says the risk to their careers is the reason it is important to offer whistleblower awards. “[This plaintiff] was not the only employee at J&J aware of this conduct, but she was one of only a few brave enough to come forward. Others were lining their 401(k), but it was costing the government. The fact that she and others—less than 10—came forward is important and they should be rewarded for their courage, especially considering they will not going back to work there or in that field.” Whistleblowers in such cases come to Sheller, P.C. directly, often through referrals from law firms across the country that recognize its expertise, or from government officials who recommend private representation.

McCormick understands the requirements of filing a government case more than others; he served as an analyst with the FBI where he was responsible for researching, collecting and distilling information. “It really has taught me how to investigate and put a case together when working with the government,” he says. “It gives me a leg up in understanding what government investigators are looking for.

“I wanted to continue to pursue big, important and far-reaching cases,” adds McCormick, who was a partner in the Philadelphia office of a large, international law firm before joining Sheller, P.C. in 2007, “but for individuals who I can make a difference for, rather than already successful businesses.” He finds tremendous satisfaction in knowing that his victories now enable victims to receive the health care they deserve, or ensure their children’s education, despite their absence.

“Working with Steve [Sheller] is an unbelievable experience,” he says. “He is always two or three steps ahead, he can see around the corner and, while others are making a decision that will impact the case next week or next month, he is thinking about how it will affect the case in eight months or a year.”

Sheller’s long view of the law has inspired him to affect change through the creation of the Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University. The center, made possible by a $1.5 million donation from the Sheller Family Foundation, is focused on young and aspiring lawyers and social service professionals. It will provide a setting for students to work on cause-driven activities that will advance social justice through a variety of activities, from policy to litigation.  

For more than 30 years, Sheller and his wife, Sandy, have been civically, educationally and philanthropically active in the Philadelphia area and beyond. They have taken on leadership roles in organizations that serve others, empowering those most in need, recognized the service of the military and more.  

Their legacy of service continues in their children as well. The Shellers’ daughter Jamie is a managing partner at the firm, bringing depth and breadth to business development and coordination of litigation in addition to pursuing cases for individuals harmed in accidents and groups affected by defective drugs and medical devices.

“We need to make certain there is equality in health care, justice and other things,” Sheller says. “Our goal is to help implement these things. It is our obligation to try to do that, to help those most in need and provide an example for the future.”

Sheller, P.C.
1528 Walnut Street, 4th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19102
215-790-7300 | www.sheller.com

Photograph by Alison Dunlap