Rising Star: Sanford Heisler’s Danielle Fuschetti

Posted June 15th, 2021.

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Law360 (June 15, 2021, 2:20 PM EDT) — Danielle Fuschetti of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP has negotiated pay discrimination settlements that included millions of dollars in payouts and programmatic changes in the workplace, earning her a spot among the employment law practitioners under age 40 honored by Law360 as Rising Stars.

Danielle Fuschetti
Sanford Heisler

Age: 33
Home base: San Francisco
Position: Partner
Law school: University of Michigan Law School
First job after law school: A large employment defense firm

The biggest case of her career:

Fuschetti was careful to note that there are many ways to measure the size of a case or deal, and dollar amount is just one of them.

“There’s also the impact on society and the impact on the individual,” Fuschetti said.

She flagged former San Diego State University women’s basketball coach Beth Burns’ sex discrimination case as especially important.

In Burns v. San Diego State University et al., a jury found the university violated Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans sex discrimination in education programs. It sided with Burns’ claims that the university retaliated against her for speaking out about the inequities facing women’s and men’s teams by pushing her into retirement.

The case, which included an award north of $3.3 million, had an impact because it showed that it’s important not only to speak out against inequality, but also that people shouldn’t be afraid to do so, Fuschetti said.

“Any time a person steps forward and successfully pushes back against the effort to stifle any kind of advocacy for women’s sports in universities, that will have an impact,” she said. “That kind of oppositional behavior is sorely needed and, unfortunately, is frequently punished.”

The recovery for plaintiffs is also an important way to identify a big case, Fuschetti added. She noted that the $19.5 million pay discrimination settlement she helped negotiate in 2016 in Pan et al. v. Qualcomm Inc. et al. included payouts for about 3,300 employees.

It also mandated major reforms to help mitigate practices by which Qualcomm allegedly shut women out of advancement opportunities that men received, including hiring a compliance officer and conducting regular pay equity reviews.

“There was pretty substantial programmatic relief, which our firm monitored for several years after the settlement was approved,” Fuschetti said.

The most interesting case she’s worked on lately:

One case that stands out is a California representative action called Abrishamcar et al. v. Oracle America, Inc. A group of sales representatives allege the computer software maker hid behind an opaque commissions framework and confidentiality clauses to pay out leaner paychecks than they actually earned.

Fuschetti couldn’t discuss the details of the case because the final phase in a three-part trial is still to come, but she said it stands out because it’s unusual for a wage-and-hour case to get this far along.

“Wage and hour is often thought of as a dry subject, so taking one to trial teaches you a little bit about how to keep it interesting,” she said.

It also helps demonstrate how all the pieces of litigation come together in order to fight for a client, Fuschetti said.

“It makes all the small discovery disputes feel really important because you see down the line what happens, or the question in the deposition where you’re not sure you’re going to get an answer,” she said.

Fuschetti added that a trial also serves as a reminder that there are real people behind the court filings, which demonstrates why the law at issue exists in the first place.

“I think that is a really motivating thing to be constantly having to engage with the real life motivations when a law is violated,” Fuschetti said. “I think trial is the time when we get to grapple with that.”

Another notable case she’s worked on:

Fuschetti flagged Chen et al. v. Western Digital Corp. , in which a California federal judge in January signed off on a $7.75 million settlement in a pay discrimination class action.

This case stands out because Fuschetti’s team negotiated cash payments to help remedy past discrimination and programmatic changes in an effort to prevent it from happening again, she said.

In addition to the financial payments to women who missed out on advancement opportunities because of the person-to-person networks in which male employees tended to promote other men, the settlement includes operational changes to improve opportunities for women to advance, strengthen nondiscrimination policies, and expand maternity and parental leave.

Those kinds of changes are an important part of a settlement because they help set an employer on the right track to avoid problems in the future, Fuschetti said.

“Programmatic relief, especially in settlement contexts, is a way of trying to create a roadmap to creating a better workplace that the employer can follow,” Fuschetti said. “We want to actually stop the violations of these laws.”

On the future of employment law and the legal industry:

The use of arbitration as an alternative to litigating employment disputes in court is due for change, but the question is whether that will be an uptick or a decrease, Fuschetti said.

“There’s a massive trend towards imposing forced arbitration, pre-dispute, take-it-or-leave-it contracts upon employees,” Fuschetti said. Courts often uphold those pacts by citing the Federal Arbitration Act, which establishes a policy favoring arbitration, she added.

“Either the rest of the employers who are not already doing this and who aren’t ideologically opposed to it will just finish the trend here and impose these agreements, or we will see federal legislation carving out from the FAA certain kinds of arbitration agreements in the employment setting,” she said.

Fuschetti is hopeful for an update to the FAA because she sees other laws being enacted with an eye toward shifting some power back to workers.

As an example, she pointed out that California recently strengthened its equal pay statute by requiring employers to report data about how they pay workers in order to root out discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sex.

“I think we’re in a period of growing worker protections,” she said. She noted that there are serious discussions in Congress about establishing a national program for paid family and medical leave.

“I think something along those lines will get done in the next 10 years,” Fuschetti said. “It seems like there’s pretty broad support for it around the country.”

Turning to the legal industry, Fuschetti said she expects to see the trend toward greater diversity among plaintiffs attorneys continue.

“I think it’s heading in that direction,” she said. “It has been a very white male-dominated bar in the past, but it seems like it’s been getting more diverse over the years.”

To help cement the shift toward more diversity and inclusion, Fuschetti hopes to see other arms of the legal profession, such as courts, come along too by dismantling barriers for women and attorneys of color.

— As told to Jon Steingart

Law360’s Rising Stars are attorneys under 40 whose legal accomplishments belie their age. A team of Law360 editors selected the 2021 Rising Stars winners after reviewing more than 1,400 submissions. Attorneys had to be under 40 as of April 30, 2021, to be eligible for this year’s award. This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

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