Longtime Metro Detroit labor lawyer Robert Vercruysse dies at 78

Robert Vercruysse, a longtime Metro Detroit labor lawyer and noted negotiator, died Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. He was 78.

"He was a fierce advocate for his clients. He had a wicked cross-examination," said Anne-Marie Welch, Mr. Vercruysse's youngest daughter, who had practiced law with her father for the past seven years at the Clark Hill law firm. "He was trusted with the most challenging litigation and negotiations because he was just so good."

Mr. Vercruysse was involved in several big cases, notably Milliken v. Bradley, which went to the Supreme Court, on cross-border busing of children in and out of Detroit schools.

Robert Vercruysse

Mr. Vercruysse also represented the Gannett Co. partnership that printed, distributed and sold advertising for The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press during an 18-month strike in the 1990s.

"He was really creative in (the way) he proposed resolutions.  He was also an encyclopedia of case law," Welch said.

Mr. Vercruysse ultimately prevailed in helping end the strike.

“Bob cared deeply about truth, fairness and the importance of newspapers to our democracy,” said Gary Miles, editor and publisher of The News. “That made him an ideal representative of The News. And while he could be strident, he always worked hard on our behalf to amicably settle any labor challenges in a fair way. I will miss his wisdom and counsel.”

Mr. Vercruysse's achievements included winning a summary judgment in a disability discrimination case against a major auto supplier in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan and negotiating a three-year agreement with the Teamsters for Metro Detroit beer distributors, according to Clark Hill.

He also was named among the Leaders in their Field in the 2022 edition of Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business.

Mr. Vercruysse was a negotiator and litigator in employment, labor, civil rights and litigation related to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), according to his biography on the Clark Hill website. He always was willing to help others and helped shape labor and employment law in Michigan, Welch said.

"There are very few lawyers that are equally as skilled at labor as they are at employment, and he was just one of those lawyers," Welch said.

In addition to media outlets, clients included automobile manufacturers and suppliers, distributors, financial institutions, hospitals, physician groups and universities, Mr. Vercruysse's biography said.

He had a number of high-profile clients in recent years. In 2022, he represented Ferris State University in a case involving a Michigan professor suspended for making a profanity-filled video to welcome students to a new term.

"A college professor has no right to call his students and administrators sexually harassing, discriminatory or profane terms to excite them about his class. It is simply wrong!" he told the Associated Press after a judge refused to reinstate the professor’s employment at the school in Big Rapids.

Mr. Vercruysse was raised in St. Clair Shores, according to a 2016 profile in Macomb County Legal News. He attended Lake Shore High School, where he played many varsity sports, excelling at basketball, according to his obituary. As a young man, Mr. Vercruysse also enjoyed boating, fishing and duck hunting, the obituary said.

"As a child, he was my basketball coach and I was very, very average at basketball and he was a very accomplished basketball player and he was always very patient," said his son, Gary Vercruysse, a trauma and burn surgeon at the University of Michigan. "I remember fishing a lot on Lake St. Clair with him."

His grandfather, father and brother were bricklayers, the Macomb County Legal News profile reported.

"He came from very humble beginnings and he never forgot that," Gary Vercruysse said. "His father was a bricklayer and his mother was a school crossing guard ... he was able to overcome a lot of adversity."

Mr. Vercruysse earned a bachelor’s degree from the honors college at Michigan State University and graduated summa cum laude with a juris doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School, according to Welch.

He went on to serve as a law clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and founded law firm Vercruysse Metz and Murray.

Mr. Vercruysse became an adjunct labor professor at UM and co-authored several publications, including the second edition of “Employment Litigation in Michigan,” according to his biography.

Throughout his career, Mr. Vercruysse was actively engaged in mentoring lawyers, Welch said.

"He loved to teach lawyers and mentor them. ... I'm just so proud that his legacy is living on in so many lawyers in Michigan," Welch said.

Mr. Vercruysse was "the rock" of his family, Welch said. He always helped guide his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. 

"He was just so loyal. I'll miss his guidance and his loyalty the most," Welch said. "I feel really lost without him but I know that he's looking over us."

In his free time, Mr. Vercruysse enjoyed spending time on his sailboat, at his cottage or with his grandchildren, watching them play sports and perform, Welch said.

In addition to his daughter and son, Mr. Vercruysse is survived by his wife of over 39 years, Cynthia; daughter Nicole Nemec; seven grandchildren; many nieces and nephews; and his sisters-in-law, Lesley Kabza Criscenti and Susan Vercruysse.

Visitation is scheduled for 2-6 p.m. Friday at the Vermeulen-Sajewski Funeral Home in Plymouth. The funeral will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home.

Those wishing to honor Mr. Vercruysse can donate to the Special Olympics Michigan.