Will Paula Deen’s Prop 8 Legal Maneuver Work?

Posted July 11, 2013 in Labor and Employment by

In Paula Deen’s latest legal move in defending an ongoing lawsuit that accuses her of sexual and racial harassment, she claims that the employee who brought the lawsuit is white and therefore cannot sue for racist comments against African-Americans.

The explosive lawsuit filed by Lisa Jackson, a former restaurant manager for the Deen food empire, alleges that a racist and sexist environment pervaded the workplace at restaurants owned by Deen and run by her brother “Bubba” Hiers.

The complaint claims that black employees weren’t allowed to use the front door or customer restroom, while white employees were allowed to do so; that Bubba referred to the African-American kitchen staff as “niggers,” “monkeys” and “coons,” and told an African-American security guard that he must want to “rub all the black off” because he “look[ed] dirty.”

When planning Bubba’s wedding, Jackson asked what type of uniforms Deen wanted the wait staff to wear and Deen allegedly responded that what she really wanted was a “bunch of little n—– to wear long sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black ties and…to tap dance around,” but that “we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”

And those are just the allegations about race.

As for sexual harassment, Jackson claims she was not paid anywhere near the same wage as male counterparts, that the workplace was infested with Bubba’s pornography, that the manager withheld her bonus because he disapproved of her divorce, that Bubba grabbed her face and kissed her at a public event and implied she was sleeping with him, and that she complained constantly to upper management but got nowhere.

Jackson claimed the daily harassment forced her to quit her job after five years as general manager.

Deen now argues that because Jackson is white, she cannot sue for racist comments.

To support her argument, Deen cites the Supreme Court’s decision that paves the way for gay marriage in California. The court said that the groups that supported Proposition 8 – the state voter initiative that outlawed gay marriage – did not have standing to defend the measure in court.

Aside from being a little weird that Deen is using a landmark case seen as a gay-rights victory to get another civil rights case thrown out, will it work?

Attorney Michael Strauss photo

Attorney Michael Strauss

Yes and no, says Michael Strauss, an attorney in Los Angeles who represents employees.

Jackson must be in the “zone of interest” in order to sue, meaning she must be a person with an interest to protect and be somehow harmed by the racist conduct.

“I don’t know if she has standing to bring this claim, but she might actually be in the zone of interest because it seems to me the racial harassment allegations are at least somewhat tied to what was going on,” said Strauss.

On the other hand, a much stronger argument is that Jackson was forced out in retaliation for complaining about harassment of African-American employees.

“Even if the standing falls by the wayside, it shouldn’t be an issue because there are plenty of cases out there that say if you complain about illegal conduct and you get fired, you’re still protected,” said Strauss.

And it doesn’t matter if you are not a member of the group that was harassed, such as if you are a man who is fired for complaining about discrimination against women at your job.

“Let’s say you complain at work that someone is using the n-word and it’s creating a hostile work environment,” he said. Even if you are white, “if you’re fired because you complained about it, it’s a great retaliation claim.”


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