Tony Sammi ’98 has faced some challenging witnesses in his legal career, but he had never cross-examined someone with the star power of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg until he grilled the billionaire for nearly three hours in a lawsuit claiming that Facebook knowingly acquired a virtual reality company whose products used stolen technology.
While the trial in a packed Dallas courtroom focused on complex issues relating to computer code, copyright law, and nondisclosure agreements, Sammi crystallized the case with a simple question: “If you steal my bike and you paint it and put a bell on it, does that make it your bike?” he asked. Zuckerberg replied, “No.”
Sammi proved to the jury that Facebook’s acquisition of the virtual reality company Oculus VR was “one of the biggest technology heists ever,” as he claimed in his opening remarks. In January 2017, the jury ordered the defendants to pay $500 million in damages to Sammi’s clients, ZeniMax Media and id Software, which alleged that one of their former employees illegally used their virtual reality technology when he was hired by Oculus.
“Nobody has ever had Mark Zuckerberg on the stand before,” said Kurt Hemr, a partner with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who worked on the case with Sammi. “To actually get up there and put hard questions to someone like that takes a certain amount of fearlessness. Tony did a wonderful job.”
High technology litigation has become Sammi’s specialty, partly because of his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. Although he was attracted to engineering because he “loved trying to figure out how things worked,” Sammi, who was an avid fan of L.A. Law and other television courtroom dramas, decided he wanted to combine his technical skills with his interest in law.
“As I got more senior in college, I said, ‘I want to do something a little bit beyond engineering, and just because I’m a scientist doesn’t mean I can’t be an orator or a litigator,'” Sammi said.
After graduating, he turned down a job working at Bell Helicopter and instead enrolled in Cornell Law School. Though he initially felt out of place with an engineering degree, Sammi, who was elected president of the Cornell Law Student Association, came to realize that having analytical skills was a valuable resource in his legal training.
“I remember one professor, after one of my first exams, who came up to me and said, ‘Do you have a technical background?'” Sammi recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ And he said, ‘I can always tell which students have a technical background because they’re the only ones who really try and answer the question.'”
In 2000, Sammi joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in its New York City office and started working on intellectual property cases. He became a partner in 2010, and this past May, he was named head of the intellectual property litigation group.
One of his first big cases at the firm was a patent infringement lawsuit that would take eight years to litigate. The case involved DataTreasury, a firm that buys patents for the purpose of suing other companies for alleged patent infringement.
DataTreasury had sued more than fifty major banks and financial services companies, claiming they had illegally used its patents. The company had filed a $900 million lawsuit against Sammi’s client, Viewpointe Archive Services, the largest check-processing company in the country.
“What we said in our defense was, these patents are invalid, and even if they are valid, we didn’t infringe on them because we do things differently,” said Sammi, who was named a 2017 Winning Litigator by the National Law Journal.
In 2010, a judge in the Eastern District of Texas determined that Viewpointe had zero liability in the case, which was the only one of DataTreasury’s lawsuits that ever went to trial. The verdict led banks to lobby Congress to pass the America Invents Act, a 2011 law that protects companies from being disrupted by patent trolls.
Phillip Philbin, a partner with Haynes and Boone in Dallas, who worked on the case, recalls that Sammi played a significant role in preparing the strategy, executing the plan, and presenting the case to the jury. “I would call him a savant of the spoken word,” Philbin said. “He is very good at communicating, and he connects with people.”
Outside of work, Sammi cofounded the South Asian Bar Association of New York, which does pro bono humanitarian work in the city. Sammi, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India, notes that there are thousands of South Asian lawyers in the New York area, and it hasn’t been difficult attracting many of them to volunteer with the association. “It’s great to see the increase in the numbers and to see that critical mass turn into something that can help the association with our work,” he said.