Paula Deen, a celebrity chef known for her extreme Southern cooking and excesses, has been embroiled in scandal for the last several months, bringing together an odd mix of legal and marketing issues, celebrity, and Southern history. In 2012, former restaurant manager, Lisa Jackson, filed a hostile work environment and discrimination lawsuit against Paula Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, based on race and sex, among other claims. Deen and Hiers hired defense counsel and began to vigorously defend against the lawsuit. In what is clearly a publicity fiasco, Deen’s deposition, at which she admitted to having used racial epithets, has been admitted to the court of public opinion. Public opinion on this has been uniform and very negative, leading The Food Network, Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears to drop their affiliations with Deen.
Monday’s ruling by Federal Judge William T. Moore Jr. in Georgia, dismissing Jackson’s race discrimination claims for lack of standing (Jackson is Caucasian, but focused on race discrimination against other African Americans in her case), is a good one for Deen, the damage to Deen’s substantial empire has already been done. This matter just proves that the essential ingredients to successful EEO litigation defense may include careful planning to avoid litigation altogether. This might include pre-litigation dispute resolution such as mediation and having some frank discussions with your counsel in the early days to determine whether a confidential settlement might be worth avoiding the chance of bad publicity for your organization.
- Kirstin Muller