Sarah E.W. McGahee’s Pet Project

The employment attorney defends the ‘puppy mill’ law

Published in 2014 Texas Rising Stars — April 2014

Sarah E.W. McGahee was at her desk in early January 2013 when her phone rang. It was Jesse Moore, a colleague at the Austin firm Hunton & Williams, asking if she could help represent a couple of clients: The Humane Society of the United States and the Texas Humane Legislation Network.

They were filing an amicus brief in support of House Bill 1451, otherwise known as the Texas “puppy mill” law, in response to a challenge to the law’s constitutionality. In effect since 2012, the law requires the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to inspect and license breeders who have 11 or more breeding females or who annually sell more than 20 kittens and puppies. It mandates certain health and safety measures, such as giving dogs a certain amount of exercise, taking them for regular vet visits, and waiting until animals are at least 8 weeks old before they are sold.

“The stuff you would want to do anyway,” says McGahee.

She told Moore she would be happy to research the case, and assist at the hearings, pro bono.

McGahee, 36, was raised in Katy and lives with her husband, David, in Round Rock with their two dogs, Oliver and Ginger—a cockapoo and a goldendoodle—and a tabby cat named Lucy. (The couple were expecting their first child in February.)

“I feel so strongly about animals and that we should be defending the law,” McGahee says.

But where she saw common sense, some breeders saw big government interference. The Sportsmen’s and Animal Owners’ Voting Alliance considered site inspection tantamount to home invasion, and told members that “requiring yearly veterinary exams takes away the owners’ right to choose how they take care of their property.” 

“[The breeders’] stipulation was, ‘We love these animals, and you are going to put us out of business,’” says McGahee, who graduated from Baylor Law School in 2005 and joined Hunton & Williams two years later. “There was no evidence this had happened—none of them had stopped breeding. It was all speculative.”

The heated emotions that can accompany business disputes are something McGahee understands. “During law school, I took classes on employment law and really fell in love with it,” she says. One of her favorite parts of working in this field is “addressing issues before they occur”—such as helping companies craft guidelines and handbooks for managers and human resources, intended to take some of the confusion and sting out of, for instance, a termination, thus minimizing the risk of litigation.

Still. “It can be a very emotional area of law—which makes it interesting,” says McGahee. “You can’t really practice in this field without getting into the nitty-gritty of interpersonal relationships and how those affect the workplace.”

But in the workplace that the “puppy mill” law affected, one side of the relationship could not speak for itself. And the other side was spoiling for a fight. The Texas Public Policy Foundation labeled the law costly and said it discouraged business growth and added to what it viewed as excessive licensing regulations. An ostensibly pro-dog group’s online website called on Gov. Rick Perry to veto the law so that breeders, it said, could fight “for their Constitutional Right to own Property, to be free of Search and Seizure, and the Right to Privacy.”

“People get very passionate about their pets,” says McGahee.

Yet on the morning of Jan. 25, 2013, the plaintiffs—several independent breeders with small home businesses—could not convince the judge that the oversight mandated by HB 1451 was anything but sensible. Temporary restraining order: denied.

“Which we took as a good sign,” says McGahee. “The judge was not buying what they were selling.” At a Jan. 31 hearing, the plaintiffs called for a preliminary injunction, but the judge denied it that same day.

The case was all in a day’s work for the firm’s attorneys, all of whom participate in pro bono work. McGahee often does pro bono work on wills, name changes and expungement of criminal records. (“I try to stay away from divorce,” she says, and laughs.) This case was particularly satisfying.

“I have had dogs and cats in my life since the day I was born, and they have always played an important role in my family,” she says. “Most people I have discussed the case with agree that animals are different from other types of property and deserve these minimal protections, if not more.”

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