Posted September 13th, 2019.
Law360 (September 13, 2019, 4:14 PM EDT) — Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP partner Kate Mueting has guided lawyers and female professionals in numerous other industries through gender discrimination class actions against high-profile employers like KPMG and Jones Day, earning her a spot among the five employment lawyers under age 40 honored by Law360 as Rising Stars.
Mueting has spent nearly eight years at Sanford Heisler, where she now co-chairs its Title VII employment practice, focusing largely on class actions alleging gender bias, pay discrimination and sexual harassment. Those cases often involve professional women ranging from lawyers and academics to low-wage call center workers.
Two cases that Mueting points to as being among the most notable of her public work include her representation of hundreds of women accusing accounting firm KPMG LLP of giving them short-shrift in pay and promotions and a recently filed suit accusing Jones Day of systemic gender discrimination against associates.
Although a New York federal judge didn’t certify a nationwide class in the KPMG case that could have included over 10,000 female employees, Mueting is part of an effort to overturn that decision in the Third Circuit while she also continues pursuing individual Equal Pay Act claims at the trial court level for several hundred women who had opted into the suit. The parties in the Jones Day suit, which is still in its infancy, are currently embroiled in pre-discovery disputes over the scope of the complaint and the viability of certain claims.
But while those cases made it into the public eye, over 95% of the matters Mueting handles are resolved before any suit is filed. Mueting is happy to have that “balance” of both public cases and private resolutions since it offers her both a chance to take part in consequential litigation while also helping clients who want to avoid publicity have their claims addressed quickly.
“I think that the public cases enable me to take part, to a greater extent, in this national conversation that we’re having right now on gender issues, on the gender pay gap, on sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, on the roles of women at work and at home and how those roles are often defined by gender and sexist stereotypes,” she said. “I think that if I only did confidential settlements, it would be harder to play a part in that national conversation and that movement. That said, I get a lot of satisfaction out of being able to help individuals address the discrimination and unfairness that they have experienced, see some changes made, get some justice and enable our clients to then move on.”
When litigating contentious cases, Mueting says it can be difficult for plaintiffs lawyers to keep their eye on the actual allegations of discrimination and not get sidetracked by procedural issues that employers may raise.
Those can include discovery disputes that are invading clients’ privacy and attempts to inconvenience clients either through schedules or discovery requests that aren’t focused on the issues of the case.
“I find that employers do an awful lot to try to avoid having anyone focus on the actual claim [and] to avoid having a jury or a court decide whether there was discrimination,” Mueting said. “Employers often spend a lot of time trying to focus on side issues instead of the underlying discrimination action. I think they often want people to not look at the underlying discrimination action and I think it can be a challenge for plaintiffs’ lawyers to stay focused on what the real claims are.”
What motivates her:
Since a person’s job plays a central role in their lives, Mueting said she finds it “meaningful” to help people navigate situations in which they’ve been mistreated at their workplace, noting it’s often “challenging” for them to stand up against the discrimination they’ve experienced.
As such, Mueting says she has “always been motivated to address and tackle injustice and unfairness,” and remains passionate about people, and especially women, being treated fairly at work.
“Employment is something that is very important to people’s lives and I enjoy representing people in what is personally concerning for them rather than companies or institutions,” Mueting said. “I have dozens of conversations with clients in any given week and I never try to lose sight of the fact that in every one of those conversations that the person on the other end is talking to me about the most important thing that’s going on in their lives. I find that helping people address those issues [is] very rewarding.”
On her work representing other attorneys:
In recent years, Mueting and her colleagues at Sanford Heisler have represented numerous female lawyers who have accused firms of systematically discriminating against them.
Mueting believes that the firm’s work is helping to improve the legal profession, saying that she personally is “very motivated to try to make legal employers better places to work for women.”
“I do very much enjoy working on the lawyer cases,” she said. “I think a lot of it is related to the fact that I am a lawyer — this is my industry, I understand it, I’m more familiar with it than I am other industries because I work in it. I’m proud to be a part of the legal profession and I do think that many legal employers have some things to change with respect to the opportunities that they provide women and the fairness of how they treat their employees.”
On the future of employment law:
In recent years, Mueting says that a cultural shift has occurred that resulted in more people seeing their workplace experiences as being discriminatory and becoming more comfortable calling improper behavior out — a trend that will continue to reverberate throughout employment law.
“I think this is a really fascinating time to be doing gender discrimination work,” Mueting said. “We are talking about gender issues in a way we haven’t been before in terms of the gender pay gap, sexual harassment and gender stereotypes and how that plays out in the workplace. I see this as having an effect on the practice in many ways and I think that will continue.”
Meanwhile, employers too are becoming more aware of the ground shifting beneath their feet when it comes to instances of workplace bias and harassment, she said.
“I think employers are also recognizing this cultural shift and recognizing that things that may have gone unchallenged in previous years — even half a dozen years ago — are no longer going to go unchallenged and are no longer going to be seen as acceptable,” she said. “So, I do think that cases that employers used to not be concerned about, they are now increasingly becoming concerned about because of this cultural shift … [and] because more people in public opinion and on juries are going to see this behavior as being discriminatory.”
— As told to Vin Gurrieri
Law360’s Rising Stars are attorneys under 40 whose legal accomplishments belie their age. A team of Law360 editors selected the 2019 Rising Stars winners after reviewing more than 1,300 submissions. Attorneys had to be under 40 years old as of April 30, 2019, in order to be considered for this year’s award. This interview has been edited and condensed.