It was a sex discrimination case. I represented a
woman named Cynthia Forrester who had been a
juvenile probation officer in a court and worked for
Judge Howard Lee White. When the [community’s]
high school football coach retired, the judge fired
her and hired the retired football coach. The issue
before the Supreme Court was whether judges
could be sued for sex discrimination.
It was fascinating because if I won, that meant
that even a federal judge, even a Supreme Court
judge, could be sued for sex discrimination. So we
weren’t just talking theoretically about something
at that argument. Those judges were talking to
me about something that could happen to them,
in theory. And we won. I got a unanimous opinion,
8-0, and Sandra Day O’Connor wrote it.
Q: It seems like you might have been at a
disadvantage, arguing for a position that
would mean that the justices themselves would
theoretically put themselves more at risk.
A: Well, I don’t think anybody’s going to sue
Q: And hopefully his chauffeur didn’t hear
anybody on the Supreme Court. But having said
that, it was still a good argument because I had
Thurgood Marshall ask me, “Well, what would
happen if I wanted to fire my chauffeur?”
And I said, “Well, you could fire your chauffeur
as long as you didn’t decide to do it based on your
chauffeur’s sex.” I was kind of surprised when Justice
Marshall asked me [that]. I never thought of him as
a guy who had a chauffeur, although of course when
you think about it, every Supreme Court justice has
a driver. My family used to say, “Yeah, Thurgood
Marshall asked her for legal advice.” That was pretty
thrilling because he was such a hero.
about that question.
A: Right! Exactly.
Q: What does it take to be successful as a
plaintiff’s employment lawyer?
A: I think the characteristic that’s most
important is persistence. You’re up against big
firms; you’re up against big corporations; they
say, “No, no, no,” on the discovery. We have to
push, push, push.
One of the things I find most enjoyable about
the practice is that you mostly have big firms
on the other side, and you have a very complex
and interesting area of the law, and so it’s very
challenging. You have to bring your ‘A’ game all
the time. It’s fun to do work that deals with a
lot of intellectual challenges, and where you’ve
got good lawyers on the other side. I could tell
you about some of the negatives of some of
the lawyers on the other side, but we’re dealing
mostly with very accomplished and competent
lawyers, and they don’t give an inch. So you’ve
just got to be persistent.
Q: What’s your strategy for communicating
with a jury?
A: It’s really important in voir dire to find out about
the juror’s personal experience with work because
everybody’s worked, and everybody has attitudes
about how things ought to be done at work, and
what to expect at work. I think it’s also important
to talk about all the ways in which your client
tried to solve this problem on their own and took
responsibility for the problem; and never to present
the client as a victim because jurors are not really
interested in that notion of victimization anymore.
They want to see people stand up for themselves,
take care of themselves, and so the whole business
[is about] presenting the client as a worthy person
who has worked hard to avoid coming to court, and
for whom, really, court is a last resort.
Q: What are your most memorable cases?
A: I had a case that I took as a nationwide claim for
class action for women who worked at a company
for Rent-A-Center. I worked with a lawyer named
Jerry Schlichter. He was my co-counsel here in St.
Louis. And we filed a nationwide class action, and
got the class certified, and settled the case for $47
million, jobs for hundreds of women, promotions
for hundreds of women, and basically, a complete
overhaul of the human resources function of that
company. That was an extraordinary case, and an
extraordinarily satisfying case.
And then I’ve had cases for just individuals that
were very satisfying. I represented a Muslim guy
named Mohamad Alhalabi who was demoted
and then fired from a job by the state of Missouri
because, basically, his employees didn’t want to
work for a Muslim guy.
It was after the time of September 11, and they
harassed him, and sent terrible messages, and
it was very satisfying to win that case because
Mohamad was treated terribly and truly did not
Q: Are you seeing the same sorts of
discrimination today that you saw when you
started your career? How have things changed?
A: Well, I think things tend to come in waves,
and so it’s varied over my career. But right now,
we’re seeing a lot of age discrimination because
I think older employees are losing their jobs
in pretty significant numbers again. The other
thing we’re seeing is a lot of whistle-blowers. I
think, particularly after the economic downturn,
employers were less tolerant of employees that
wanted to see the letter of the law followed, and so
we’re seeing a lot of whistle-blower stuff now.
Q: Tell me about arguing in front of the U.S.
A: That was an amazing experience. It was in 1987.
Never present the client as a victim because jurors are not really
interested in that notion of victimization anymore,” Sedey says.
“They want to see people stand up for themselves ... and
so the whole business [is about] presenting the client as a
worthy person ... for whom, really, court is a last resort.”