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Civil Rights Attorney Cary McGehee On Law, Life, And Basketball
By Kristin Arnold
Cary McGehee is a fighter. Whether she’s in the courtroom or on the basketball court, McGehee’s passion to win is unparalleled. Since 2006, McGehee has been rated one of the top employment lawyers in her home state of Michigan and throughout the United States. She’s a founding partner of the law firm of Pitt, McGehee, Mirer, Palmer, Rivers & Golden P.C., established in 1992. When she’s not defending her clients against discrimination, sexual harassment, and employment contracts, McGehee officiates Division I NCAA women’s basketball games. THELAW.TV talked with McGehee for our 3 Questions feature.
Kristin Arnold: What’s the most interesting case you ever worked on and how did it make a difference?
Cary McGehee: The most important case that I ever worked on was with a team of attorneys in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than five hundred Michigan female inmates who were sexually assaulted and harassed by male corrections officers. The treatment of women and girls in Michigan’s prison at the hands of male guards was tantamount to torture. The case was litigated over a 13 year period, including numerous stays and appeals. Finally, in 2008, ten of the class members’ cases went to trial and a unanimous jury found that a hostile sexual environment existed at the prisons and that the state had failed to protect the women from the abuse. The jury awarded these women $15.5 million, and in a most unusual gesture, demonstrating their compassion for the women and embarrassment that this had happened in their state, told the judge that they wanted to make an apology to these women on behalf of the State of Michigan. A second trial followed for eight more class members, in which I was lead counsel, resulting in an $8.4 million verdict. When calculated with interest, these awards totaled $46.2 million. The verdicts were upheld on appeal and the case ultimately settled for $100 million, one of the largest settlements in the state of Michigan. This case made a difference because it was not only a victory for the class members, but is also resulted in large improvements in the prison system, including the removal of male guards from the female prison housing units, and other safeguards to prevent sexual assaults, harassment, and retaliation.
Arnold: Why did you become a civil rights and employment attorney?
McGehee: I became a civil rights/employment attorney representing individuals who have been victims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation because it was a natural choice based on my upbringing. When I was growing up, my father was the Episcopal Bishop of Michigan and a recognized civil rights and social justice leader. He and my mother instilled in me the importance of equal rights and treating all people with respect and dignity. I was taught to know, stand up for, and, if necessary, fight for your rights, and to protect the rights of those who lack the social and economic power to do so for themselves. My dad always told me that, sure there are a lot of attorneys in the world, but there is always room for a righteous and hard working one.
Arnold: If you were not an attorney, what would your dream job be?
McGehee: If I was not an attorney, my dream job would be playing professional women’s basketball. In college, I played point guard at a Division I college. While I was a point guard and directed the team in plays, I really loved to shoot. In fact, my teammates use to tell me: “You never saw a shot you didn’t like.” Following college, in 1984, the Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA) was established. I tried out for and made the Dallas Diamonds professional basketball team. On the Diamonds, I played point guard with notables, including women’s basketball pioneer Nancy Lieberman. The Dallas Diamonds won the national championship the year I played, but unfortunately, the league folded due to a lack of finances after its first year. Later, in 1992, after I had already graduated from law school and was practicing law, I played in a professional game at the Palace of Auburn Hills (where the Detroit Pistons play), for a new league called the Liberty Basketball Association (LBA). Unfortunately, the LBA did not make it either. If the WNBA had been around at that time, I would have loved to play in that league and make a profession out of my first love: basketball. A judge, who knew that I used to play professional basketball, once told me, after hearing one of my opening statements: “You really took that to the hole!” I wish I could be on the hardwood now, dribbling and shooting and taking the ball to the hole. As a means of staying in the game, as an avocation, I decided to officiate women’s college basketball, and have been a Division I women’s basketball official for over 15 years.
Watch Cary McGehee and other attorneys from Pitt, McGehee answer questions about employment law on video.