SAVANNAH, Ga. -- A Chatham County Superior Court judge on Tuesday rejected a gag order governing pre-trial comment in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the former general manager of Uncle Bubba’s restaurant.
In the lawsuit, Lisa T. Jackson alleges she was the victim of violent behavior and sexual harassment for the five years she worked for the Paula Deen family of companies.
Judge Louisa Abbot said she would file an order denying the request by attorneys for Paula Deen and her business entities. Deen attorney I. Gregory Hodges argued the suit was an attempt to force a $1.25 million settlement of the claims under threat to Deen’s reputation.
In the 33-page suit filed Monday, Jackson also charged that the family-run operation, which includes The Lady & Sons restaurant, engaged in a persistent pattern of racial discrimination in the workplace.
But the bulk of her charges were focused on Deen’s brother, Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers, and his operation of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House Inc. on Bryan Wood Road on Whitemarsh Island.
“The staff of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House Inc. lived in fear of Bubba Hiers,” Jackson’s suit, filed by attorney S. Wesley Woolf, alleges.
“Ms. Jackson was subject to sexually harassing conduct by Bubba Hiers every single day Ms. Jackson came to work for over five years.”
In court Tuesday, Hodges and attorney William Franklin argued Jackson “wanted to damage Paula Deen because she wouldn’t pay her $1.2 million when she asked.”
Hodges presented a demand letter from Woolf dated Jan. 31 in which he urged Deen’s lawyers to consider the “economic losses they will experience if we are caused to bring this matter to a public forum. ... Exposure of the racist and sexist culture of her corporate and personal life is going to permanently and irreparably damage the value of her brand.”
Woolf also told Deen’s lawyers he was making arrangements for a press conference on the day of filing and had identified a number of journalists, including the New York Times, to draw attention to the suit.
Woolf earlier sent a letter dated Sept. 3 in which he demanded $12 million to settle the claims, Hodges said.
“That is improper conduct ... unethical conduct. It may be criminal,” Hodges said.
Attorney Tom Withers, who represents Hiers, joined in the defense motion.
Woolf, who complained he did not receive the motion until just before court, urged Abbot to dismiss the request as being inadequate “on its face.”
In her suit, Jackson alleged Hiers’ conduct included “inescapable pornography he brought to the workplace” and instances of alleged drunken behavior by Hiers toward other employees and Jackson.
The suit also alleges that Hiers “on numerous occasions” placed Jackson “in reasonable fear of bodily injury with apparent ability to inflict such harm.”
The suit lists as defendants Paula Deen, Paula Deen Enterprises LLC, The Lady & Sons LLC, the Lady Enterprises Inc., Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers and Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House Inc.
The multi-count suit seeks a permanent halt against the defendants from further unlawful conduct and unspecified damages, including back pay and benefits.
Two phone calls seeking comment from Deen’s representative were not returned.
Jackson contends she began work with the Paula Deen family of companies in February 2005 and continued until “she could no longer bear the sexual harassment, racial harassment and abusive treatment” that forced her to leave on Aug. 19, 2010.
According to the suit, Jackson, a white female, was hired as hostess at Uncle Bubba’s and after six months was promoted to general manager.
The suit also details repeated instances of alleged racial discrimination in the workplace, including references to black employees by the “N” word and requirements that black employees use the back entrances for all purposes and being prohibited from using the front entrance.
Jackson alleges black staffers were required to use one restroom at the back of the restaurant and not the customer restroom, while white staff “was allowed to use the customer bathroom.”
In one incident in March 2010, Lady & Sons Restaurant General Manager Dustin Walls, “who is one of the best friends of Paula Deen’s son Jamie Deen,” threatened to fire all of the “monkeys” in the kitchen - the black kitchen staff - Jackson alleges.
Paula Deen “slapped him on the wrist” - something she did not want to do but did only because over her concerns of NAACP involvement, Jackson says in the suit.
Her “numerous and frequent complaints of racial and sexual harassment and abusive treatment” to corporate management, including Paula Deen and Hiers, were not addressed, the suit says.
In her 13-page answer filed Tuesday, Deen’s lawyers said Jackson’s claims against Paula Deen and Deen defendants were “scurrilous and false claims,” including alleged acts that occurred more than two years prior to the filing of the suit and would be barred by Georgia’s statute of limitations.
It also said Jackson had not filed a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging sexual or gender harassment and generally denied claims or stated they lacked information to determine the truth of allegations in the suit.
Hiers had not filed his answers to the suit by end of day Tuesday.