Why the Racial Discrimination Claim Against Paula Deen Was Dismissed

Celebrity chef Paula Deen recently received significant negative publicity after the transcript of her deposition in a race discrimination case became public, but the court dismissed the race discrimination claim against her anyway.

The fallout for Deen began when she was asked during a deposition if she had used racial epithets in the past and answered “yes, of course.”  After the deposition became public, Deen lost a number of valuable endorsement deals worth millions of dollars.  Despite Deen’s deposition testimony, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia later dismissed the claims for racial discrimination against Deen.

In the lawsuit, a former employee of Deen asserted claims for both sexual harassment and racial discrimination that occurred in the workplace.  Although the plaintiff was white, she alleged that the workplace was a racially discriminatory environment because of bias against African-Americans.

In its order on Deen’s motion to dismiss, the court held that the plaintiff lacked standing to pursue her race discrimination claims against Deen under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 131 S.Ct. 863 (2011), the court held that a plaintiff has standing under Title VII if he or she “falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for [the] complaint.”  If the plaintiff’s interests are only “marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute,” then the plaintiff does not have standing to pursue the claim.

The court held that the white plaintiff did not have standing to sue Deen under Title VII.  In support of its holding, the court explained that “[a]t best, Plaintiff is an accidental victim of the alleged racial discrimination.”  The court emphasized that the plaintiff did not allege that racially offensive comments were directed at her or made with the intent to harass her.  In response to the plaintiff’s argument that the discriminatory work environment harmed her ability to have “harmonious working relationships” with African-Americans, the court held that “workplace harmony is not an interest sought to be protected by Title VII.”  The court acknowledged that the plaintiff may have suffered workplace difficulties as a result of the alleged racial harassment, but nevertheless held that she was not within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII.

The court did not dismiss the plaintiff’s sexual harassment claims, but the parties reached a confidential settlement of the matter last week.

Takeaway:  The Deen case presents the relatively unusual circumstance of a white plaintiff asserting a race discrimination claim based on alleged bias against African-Americans.  Although the claim was dismissed due to lack of standing, a more effective deterrent to liability is for employers to ensure that they have policies and procedures in place to prevent discrimination in the first place.

About Michael Miller

Michael is a Chambers-rated attorney in Briggs and Morgan's Employment, Benefits, and Labor group and is head of the firm’s Employment Law Counseling and Compliance practice group. He has 25 years experience counseling employers to prevent unwanted litigation and advises companies of ongoing changes in federal, state and local employment law. Michael advises employers in all areas of employment law including discipline and discharge, leaves of absence, wage and hour compliance, non-compete and confidentiality agreements, affirmative action plans, background checking, and drug/alcohol testing. For Michael's full bio, click here.

Posted on August 26, 2013, in Discrimination and Harassment, Public Interest and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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