Perched in his chair in the corner office of his 17th floor downtown Brooklyn office, attorney Sanford Rubenstein fervently recounts nearly 50 years of cases in which he has successfully become the voice for the voiceless. He sits in front of an oversized window, boasting tremendous views of the Manhattan Bridge and the New York City skyline in the distance, with a sense of intense pride. Nearly every inch of the walls in the room is covered with individually framed photos of newspaper clippings of all his multi-million dollar settlements, him with prominent politicians, celebrities, and the everyday people he has championed for decades. Space is so scarce, the photos overflow onto the tops of bookcases and shelves. Sanford, who often goes by the nickname Sandy, is a champion for the people.
As the senior partner at the law firm Rubenstein & Rynecki, along with attorney Scott Rynecki, his areas of practice include wrongful death, medical malpractice, civil rights (with an emphasis on police brutality), product liability, construction accidents and school negligence. The largest case for the firm was in 2014. Rubenstein and his team were successful in obtaining a $62 million jury verdict for a woman who suffered a bilateral amputation and hearing loss in a medical malpractice case.
Sanford Rubenstein understands that when dealing with civil rights cases, the court of public opinion is critical. He is an expert at bringing attention to his cases, and dubs media coverage as “The trial before the trial.” He works relentlessly to ensure accurate information is relayed in his cases. Rubenstein has appeared on Good Morning America, Good Day New York, Inside Edition, Geraldo at Large, and The Montel Williams Show, to name a few. He has also been a legal analyst on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
Rubenstein is a native New Yorker who came from humble beginnings, growing up in the tough Ravenswood New York Housing projects in Queens. When he was 14 years old, his family moved to the suburbs of Rockland County in upstate New York. He completed his bachelor’s degree at the State University of New York (SUNY), earned his MBA in New York City, and went to law school at night in Brooklyn while teaching public school in Harlem during the day. In 1972 he graduated from law school, wrapped up internships, and gained admission to the Bar. His career began to take off when he started hosting a show on a radio station in Brooklyn called “Know Your Rights.”
Rubenstein went on to be mentored by, and work alongside, legendary civil rights lawyer Johnnie Cochran. He was also a lawyer for the Reverend Al Sharpton for almost two decades. When he isn’t fighting for the rights of others, he enjoys running–he finished the New York City Marathon–and collecting modern Haitian art, amassing one of the largest collections in the world. He is an author who in 2010 penned a book entitled The Outrageous Rubenstein, in which he writes about his experience as a media-savvy trial lawyer fighting for justice and change.
A profile of him published in the American Bar Association periodical Minority Trial Lawyer described him as follows: “Prolific, legendary, change-maker, and even outrageous are all accurate descriptions of the renowed civil rights attorney based in New York, Sanford Rubenstein. Rubenstein’s career has been punctuated by many heart-wrenching, high-profile cases in which he has represented countless victims of wrongful acts. Yet, it is Rubenstein’s mastery of the trial outside of the courtroom–, under the scrutiny of a jury comprising the press, the public, and policymakers–that sets him apart from other civil rights attorneys.”
With hard work comes recognition, and his accolades includes being crowned a Grand Marshall of the Caribbean Day Parade this year and he has hosted events side by side with Haitian Presidents due to his work for the Haitian community. He is considered to be one of the nation’s 25 top trial lawyers by the Melvin M. Belli Society of the American Trial Lawyers Association. He has been honored by the NAACP, Reverend Al Sharpton’s NAN and Black Lives Matter Greater New York. He has been named one of the top 100 litigators for New York by the American Society of Legal Advocates, and one of the top 100 civil plaintiffs lawyers in the country by the National Trial Lawyers in 2017.
One of his most high-profile cases was that of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant. Twenty years ago, he was forcibly sodomized by a New York police officer in the bathroom of a New York City police precinct. In the predawn hours of August 9, 1997, Abner Louima was leaving a nightclub in East Flatbush where a crowd on the street had become rowdy, causing police officers to interject themselves. Things became a bit chaotic when Officer Justin Volpe was punched, mistook the assailant for Louima, a 30-year-old trained engineer in Haiti, who at the time was working as a security guard in the United States. Louima was charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing government administration, and resisting arrest.
The arresting officers beat Louima with their fists, nightsticks, and hand-held police radios on the ride to the 70th precinct police station. At the station, Volpe, brought Louima to the bathroom. Louima was handcuffed with his hands behind his back, and he was held down while Volpe sodomized him with a stick. He was left bleeding on the floor of a cell, and spent two months in a hospital after surgery for his internal injuries. Later, Volpe in court admitted to assaulting Louima. Louima’s subsequent civil suit in which he was represented by Sanford Rubenstein against the City of New York and the Police Benevolent Association, ended in a settlement of $8.75 million on July 30, 2001.
The Abner Louima case is one of the most important civil rights cases in New York City history.
The case was mentioned in the 1998 Amnesty International report on the United States among several other cases of police brutality, torture, and abuse. Amnesty International also uses the incident as a case study on a treatise in the campaign against torture. Mike McAlary, a New York Daily News journalist, won the 1998 Pullitzer Prize for distinguished commentary for his expose of the brutalization of Louima.
In 2018 Rubenstein, who regards himself as an activist lawyer, spoke from the same spot Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Riverside Church when he condemned Lyndon B. Johnson for the Vietnam War. Rubenstein condemned the immigration policies of the Trump administration, which he sees as one of the most significant civil rights issues facing the United States today. Keeping in line with his activism, Rubenstein attended the first Women’s March, and has spoken at numerous demonstrations on behalf of immigrants throughout New York City.
In the immediate future, Rubenstein sees the midterm elections as paramount, and he hopes they will help improve the current political climate in the United States. He sees the immigration policies of the Trump administration as unjust, and he will continue to fight for change. Sanford Rubenstein shows no signs of slowing down; and he has become one of America’s best-known lawyers. He attributes his success to his ability to gain the trust of each client he works for, providing excellent legal representation, and a sincere desire to make a permanent difference one case at a time. He has helped change laws and wants to ensure that once a victim suffers an injustice he does everything in his power to ensure it does not happen to someone else. One of the most revealing indicators of Rubenstein’s passion and purpose can be found in the dedication of his book “The Outrageous Rubenstein”. He writes, “To my young grandsons, Myles and Marcus, may you grow up in a better world than the one we live in now.”