Lawsuits

Paula Deen Settles the Suit That Wrecked Her Empire


Celebrity chef Deen

Photograph by Carlo Allegri/AP Photo

Celebrity chef Deen

The lawsuit that prompted Paula Deen to disclose her past use of a racial epithet ended with a settlement agreement Friday, nearly two months after intense media scrutiny of allegedly boorish behavior and discrimination inside her businesses led to the collapse of her culinary empire. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed; the one-sentence statement filed in U.S. District Court in Savannah announced only that all parties had agreed to dismiss the case.

Deen said in a statement issued through her publicist on Friday that she is “working to review the workplace environment issues that were raised in this matter and retool all of my business operations.” She acknowledged no wrongdoing. “I am confident that those who truly know how I live my life know that I believe in kindness and fairness for everyone,” she said.

Filed last year by Lisa Jackson, a white woman who had worked for five years managing a Savannah, Ga.-area restaurant co-owned by Deen and her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers, the lawsuit started as a race and sex discrimination case. In a ruling last week, U.S. District Judge William T. Moore dismissed the race claims. The judge concluded that, as a white employee, Jackson couldn’t sue for the anti-black bias she claimed to have observed at the restaurant, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster and Seafood House. Jackson never claimed she’d been retaliated against for complaining about work conditions, which could have given her the right to sue.

That ruling came too late to spare Deen from questions about her racial attitudes in sworn depositions. Excerpts of those depositions made national headlines, and Deen struggled to explain herself in video apologies and an appearance on the Today show. Within days, major sponsors and business partners—including Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT), and other retailers that sold her products—cut ties to Deen. The Food Network (SNI), whose Deen ratings had been dropping, also declined to renew her contract amid the controversy.

As her business empire fell apart, Deen fired her original, all-local legal team last month and hired new lawyers led by Grace Speights, managing partner of the Washington office of Morgan, Lewis & Bookius.

Jackson’s lawyer, Wesley Woolf, had written a letter to Deen’s attorney before filing the lawsuit last year, seeking $1.25 million for his client and suggesting that the bad publicity from a trial would cost the famous Southern chef far more than a settlement. Deen’s then-lawyers replied that the claims were false and declined to make a deal.

“The matter has been amicably resolved,” Woolf said today in an e-mail.

Woolner is a former Bloomberg columnist and reporter, now a freelance writer in Savannah. She can be reached at awoolner@mindspring.com.

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