Burgess Sharp & Golden Senior Counsel Joseph Golden was honored for his 50 years of work in employment law. We’ve republished Erik Berkman’s retrospective here.
Joe Golden went to law school because a personality test indicated his medical IQ was on the “low end.” Then, while taking a constitutional law class, he realized he wanted to advocate for the underdog.
As one of Michigan’s leading labor-side employment lawyers, he’s done just that for 50 years and counting.
“It’s basically the little guy against the big guy when it comes to employment law,” said Golden, senior counsel at Burgess Sharp & Golden PLLC in Clinton Township. “(Employers) are willing to spend a great deal of money to contest claims that they’ve discriminated. The little guy has nobody. So the opportunity to go against the big guys on a level playing field, in the courtroom, is a challenge and a treat.”
Early in his career, Golden primarily represented teachers’ unions in labor disputes. Then in 1980, the Michigan Supreme Court weakened the employment-at-will doctrine by allowing workers to bring wrongful discharge claims if they could show they’d been assured they wouldn’t be fired absent just cause. After that, Golden could build a practice representing nonunion workers as well, which was bolstered further in 1991 when Congress amended Title VII to allow federal jury trials in workplace discrimination cases.
But in Golden’s most well-known case, he represented someone who was far from a little guy — legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler — in a lawsuit against the Detroit Tigers. Schembechler, who’d left his position as Michigan athletic director in 1990 to become Tigers’ team president, sued the club two years later during owner Tom Monaghan’s sale of the team to Mike Ilitch. Schembechler claimed the Tigers violated a promise of job security. The case settled in 1994 for a significant sum, long after Golden says it should have.
He also says the case impacted him in two significant ways.
First, Golden saw a whole different side of life while spending so much time with a celebrity who couldn’t go anywhere in Michigan without being recognized. Additionally, it broadened his clientele. He has the long, flowing beard of a Civil War general, which he’s maintained for 48 years, and he speculates that his unconventional appearance used to cost him clients. But after the Schembechler case, people changed their minds.
“They were now saying, ‘Well, if he’s good enough for Bo, he’s good enough for me,’” he chuckles.
Meanwhile, if there’s one thing Golden looks back on with particular pride, it’s that he’s never once made a decision in a case based on what he thought would be best for him. He’s always put the client first.
“When I’m working, I’ll bust my a** for you,” he said. “That’s what I’m proudest of and that’s how I believe I’ve earned my reputation.”