His biggest accomplishment this year:
In November, Berman settled a $208 million class action with the NCAA over allegedly inadequate coverage of living expenses for Division I student-athletes. Those eligible football and basketball players will begin receiving checks early next year, and Berman said the average check will be $6,000.
“For recent college graduates, as my kids tell me, that’s a lot of money,” Berman joked.
Berman said he was inspired to file suit against the NCAA when he read a news story about Division I athletes not being able to afford enough food.
“I was like, ‘Wow, how could that be?’" Berman said. “They can’t get a job, they’re prohibited from getting employment and they don’t really have time to get employment anyway. And then it turns out the schools aren’t paying them enough money — it just seemed like a pretty outrageous fact that needed correcting.”
Berman said it was satisfying to see the NCAA change its rules in response to his suit, so that schools now must pay the full cost of attendance for their student-athletes. It’s a major development in the discussion around paying student-athletes for the work they perform on behalf of their colleges and universities, as Division I sports like football and basketball generate millions for their schools.
Other notable cases this year:
Berman has received a lot of attention for his work battling drug companies over the cost of diabetes medication. He said it’s a similar case to one he’s fought before involving the average wholesale price versus the real price of drugs.
After hearing about diabetes patients who would intentionally skip doses in order to land in the emergency room for free doses of their medication, Berman said he had to do something.
“When I started reading articles about how expensive this medicine had become, something didn’t seem right to me because it’s a medicine that’s been around for 50 years,” Berman said. “It used to cost $7. There’s no new research money going into this. There’s no explanation of why it’s gone up 300 to 400 percent. It’s a medicine that people desperately need.”
Another price-gouging battle Berman waged this year was in the case of Stericycle, a biohazardous waste company accused of charging extremely high fees, especially to small clinics. In order to win class certification, Berman said the firm spent $3.8 million on an expert model to examine every transaction Stericycle made with its clients.
When Berman made his case for class certification, he said he was able to tell the judge that the model can discriminate between fraudulent charges and nonfraudulent charges for the 234,000 class members involved.
“I think the defendants had not anticipated we’d dig in like that,” Berman said. “When we got that certification order, they had a whole different attitude.”
Proudest moment as an attorney:
In his free time, Berman is a certified U.S. Soccer referee, officiating games in the Seattle area. On a recent Saturday, Berman was working a championship game for players under 12, and was discussing the changes made this year to rules surrounding players using their heads to punt the ball, a move that has been linked to concussions.
“One of the coaches says, ‘Yeah, I think this is a great idea,’” Berman said. “And I turned to him and said, ‘I caused that idea because I sued U.S. Soccer and as part of our settlement, they’d implemented all these changes.’ So that was pretty rewarding in real life to see how a case I did has changed something that a lot of kids are exposed to because there’s something like 8 million kids who play soccer every weekend.”
One of those 8 million is Berman’s 16-year-old daughter, who just won her state high school soccer championship. But beyond his own family, Berman said the rule change, along with another concussion-related change to NCAA rules a Berman suit catalyzed, will affect the lives of kids all over the country.
“Having handled some individual concussion cases for student-athletes, I think that settlement has the potential for saving lives, so I think we’re all pretty proud of that,” Berman said.
Why he's a class action attorney:
Berman isn’t naive to the negative stereotypes about class action lawyers — assumptions that attorneys within the practice file dozens of frivolous lawsuits in order to see what sticks to the wall to make a buck. In fact, Berman said he agrees with some of the criticism.
He recounted a recent hearing in Chicago where retiring U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur said the same. But after criticizing the state of class actions, Judge Shadur praised Berman for his work.
“He goes, ‘But this case that Steve’s handling, this is why we have class actions,’” Berman recalled. “I think if you get the right lawyers who actually care about the case at the end, making sure that people are a) injured and b) getting meaningful compensation, class actions can be a very useful tool.”
After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, Berman began working at Jenner & Block LLP, just uptown from his alma mater. But after moving to Seattle to work for Preston Gates & Ellis — the firm started by Bill Gates’ father — Berman said he caught the class action bug quickly.
“I came to view it as a David versus Goliath kind of practice where a small group of lawyers take on huge corporations and the best firms; they’re usually outnumbered and out-resourced,” Berman said. “I like the combination of that challenge with taking on important issues and being on the right side of those issues from my perspective.”
— As told to Hannah Meisel
Law360's MVPs are attorneys who have distinguished themselves from their peers over the past year through high-stakes litigation, record-breaking deals and complex global matters. A team of Law360 editors selected the 2017 MVP winners after reviewing more than 1,000 submissions.