Over the past few months, there has been a great deal of media attention focused on racially offensive statements allegedly made by Paula Deen, the renowned restaurateur and celebrity cooking show host. Deen’s career and public reputation went south (so to speak) earlier this summer after her deposition in a race discrimination lawsuit filed by Lisa Jackson, the white general manager of a restaurant owned by Paula Deen and her family. In the deposition, Deen admitted that she had used the N-word in the past.
The lawsuit alleged that a “racially biased attitude prevailed throughout and pervaded defendants’ restaurant operations.” Among other things, Jackson claimed black employees at the restaurant were only permitted to use the rear entrance, were prohibited from using customer restrooms, and were barred from working as hostesses. Deen’s brother, who is the restaurant’s co-owner, was also alleged to have made racist jokes in the workplace, “often using n***** to refer to African Americans.” Jackson claimed that the racist comments caused her to face “significant personnel management problems” in her capacity as general manager.
On August 12, 2013, the federal court in Georgia which was hearing the lawsuit dismissed the race discrimination claims brought against Deen and her brother, holding that Jackson, who was not herself the victim of race discrimination, has no basis to bring a claim of racial discrimination against her employer. Jackson v. Deen, No. 12-139 (S.D. Ga. 8/12/13).
The court relied upon the Supreme Court’s decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, 132 S. Ct. 863 (2011), which held that Title VII standing “must be construed more narrowly” than standing to sue under Article III of the Constitution. The Supreme Court in Thompson said a third party has Title VII standing only if she “falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for [her] complaint. ” Jackson is not an “aggrieved” party under Title VII because “her interests are not those arguably sought to be protected by the statute …At best, [Jackson] is an accidental victim of the alleged racial discrimination.”
So what is the take away? The race discrimination claims were dismissed, having been deemed not actionable under our civil rights statutes. That means Paula Deen won the lawsuit (although some sex discrimination and sex harassment claims remain). But, for all intents and purposes, her career has been destroyed, not because of any legal violations, but because of allegations made against her by a former employee. By answering truthfully in her deposition and doing a less than stellar job of handling the negative publicity that resulted, Paula Deen effectively brought down her empire. Is this justice? While we can debate the answer to that question, at least one fact is undisputed — in many cases, mere allegations, unfounded or not, can have a devastating impact on defendants in discrimination lawsuits.