SAVANNAH, Ga. — A federal judge on Monday threw out race discrimination claims by a former Savannah restaurant manager whose lawsuit against Paula Deen has cost the celebrity cook a chunk of her culinary empire.
Lisa Jackson sued Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, last year, saying she suffered from sexual harassment and racially offensive talk and employment practices that were unfair to black workers during her five years as a manager of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House. Deen is co-owner of the restaurant, which is primarily run by her brother.
The claims of race discrimination by Jackson, who is white, were gutted in the 20-page opinion by U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. He agreed with lawyers for Deen and Hiers that Jackson has no standing to sue her former employers for what she claims was poor treatment of black workers, regardless of her claims that she was offended and placed under additional stress.
Jackson, at best, “is an accidental victim of the alleged racial discrimination,” Moore said in his ruling. “There are no allegations that defendant Hiers’ racially offensive comments were either directed toward plaintiff or made with the intent to harass her.”
The ruling lets stand Jackson’s claims that Hiers sexually harassed her when she worked at the restaurant from 2005 to 2010. The judge said he was reserving the chance to rule on requests to dismiss other claims.
The judge said that to allow Jackson to seek legal recourse for discrimination directed toward other workers “would serve to conscript federal courts as human resource departments that are responsible for imposing and monitoring a federally created standard for harmony in the workplace.”
Jackson’s claims have resulted in serious damage to Deen’s image. Jackson’s lawyer questioned Deen under oath in May when she acknowledged having used racial slurs in the past. The backlash caused Food Network, sponsors and business partners to drop her.
Deen’s publicist issued an upbeat statement Monday: “We are pleased with the court’s ruling today … (Ms. Deen) is confident that those who truly know how she lives her life know that she believes in equal opportunity, kindness and fairness for everyone,” Elana Weiss said in an e-mailed statement.
Jackson’s attorney, Matthew Billips, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. Attorneys for Deen and Hiers also did not immediately return phone calls.
The judge’s decision comes a month after Deen and Hiers dumped their attorneys and hired a new legal team. But the court motions seeking dismissal for all race-based claims in the case were filed in December, months before those changes were made.
In her lawsuit, Jackson had claimed Hiers frequently made jokes containing racial slurs at work and prohibited black workers from using the restaurant’s front entrance and customer restrooms. She said she was personally offended because she had biracial nieces.
Attorneys for Deen have said in court filings that Jackson’s lawsuit was based on “scurrilous and false claims.” They said before Jackson filed suit, she threatened to embarrass Deen publicly unless she paid the ex-employee “huge sums of money.”