This summer, attorneys attended a final fairness hearing to approve a $14 million settlement between Dartmouth College and women who said the administration failed to protect them from harassment by faculty members. It was the culmination of a high-profile class action win for Sanford Heisler Sharp.
According to attorneys, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Landya McCafferty, in New Hampshire federal court, took a moment to comment on the “really, really excellent briefings” filed by the plaintiff’s firm in support of final approval. She added, “A judge appreciates that.”
Nicole Wiitala, an associate at Sanford Heisler, was largely responsible for that briefing, partner Deborah Marcuse, told the judge. She added to the court that Wiitala has “truly been a full partner in this litigation in a very extraordinary way both with respect to complicated legal arguments and the very complicated human elements of this case. We are very grateful to have her.”
This moment encapsulated the significant contribution Wiitala played in the Dartmouth case. The key win led to changes at the university, as well as the multi-million-dollar settlement. Her partners say her crucial role in that case as well as other class action and individual discrimination cases show she is a “superstar among superstars.”
“Nicole is the total package: a research and briefing machine in complex class actions, and an exceptional advocate and counselor for clients at their most vulnerable,” Marcuse said in an interview.
Wiitala, a South Florida native, started working on the Dartmouth litigation two years out of law school. The settlement was her proudest accomplishment at the firm, so far, she said. She drafted most of the pleadings and briefs in the case, which included a novel area of law and faced hurdles to reach class certification. She also interviewed witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, from investigative reports to social media posts.
Currently, Wiitala, based in Sanford Heisler’s New York office, serves as class counsel in a wage-and-hour class action against Alaska Communications Systems. The workers in that case won class certification in August 2018 on behalf of employees suing for unpaid overtime. She also plays a leading role in a sex discrimination class action against oil and gas giant
Other high-stakes matters Wiitala is working on include individual cases on behalf of workers for Cushman & Wakefield and Giorigo Armani Corp. She joined the firm in September 2016, after working there as a law clerk during her final year of law school at Pace University.
Wiitala said she was attracted to being a lawyer to become a “vehicle for change.” She was drawn to the plaintiff’s side and labor and employment, in part, because of a part-time job she had in college where she saw an unbalanced dynamic for women who were treated “horrendously” by the leaders of an entertainment company. She said it inspired her to help marginalized employees trapped in difficult workplace situations who are just trying to earn their paychecks.
“We’ve made some progress, but pervasive discrimination and bias still exist in the workplace,” Wiitala said. “We still have a long way to go, but I like to think that I am helping to move the needle a bit more each day.”