A former employee of a restaurant co-owned by Paula Deen has filed a lawsuit against the matronly celebrity cook, accusing her of condoning an atmosphere of sexual harassment and racism in her high-profile culinary empire. The suit also accuses Deen of casually referring to black people with a racial epithet.
The civil complaint, which was filed Monday in state court in Savannah, Ga., was brought by Lisa T. Jackson, a former manager at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, one of five restaurants in Deen’s group. The Savannah-based oyster house is co-owned by Deen and her brother, Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers.
Much of the 33-page complaint details what it says was boorish and racist behavior by Hiers, including accusations that he physically intimidated employees, displayed pornography at work, acted toward Jackson in a sexually degrading manner — including forcibly kissing her cheek and spitting on her — and repeatedly using racial epithets.
Deen, Hiers and a number of Deen-owned companies are named as defendants in the suit, which seeks unspecified damages for sexual harassment, infliction of emotional distress, and other charges. Jackson, 48, left the oyster house job in August 2010.
Calls to Deen’s Savannah business office, seeking comment from her and Hiers, were referred to the Rose Group, a Los Angeles-based “brand relations agency.” Calls to the Rose Group were not returned Monday.
Jackson — a white woman who managed a number African American employees — claims that over the course of five years, she made “numerous and frequent” complaints of racial and sexual harassment and other abusive treatment to Deen and others in her restaurant group’s upper management, but they declined to act, even though the conduct was “universally known.”
It is unclear what effect the allegations will have on Deen, who, according to her website, has risen to the status of “American lifestyle icon,” with her combination of charming Southern shtick and gut-busting comfort food, including an egg-topped bacon burger with a doughnut bun. She is the star of two Food Network shows and the author of cookbooks that have sold more than 8 million copies.
Perhaps the most explosive allegation in the suit is that Deen, a frequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey show, used the epithet. Jackson claims that she was in charge of the food for Hiers’ 2007 wedding and asked Deen what look the wedding should have.
Deen, the suit alleges, told Jackson she wanted a “true Southern plantation-style wedding” and, using the epithet, suggested African Americans that would “wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around… Now that would be a true southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”
In an interview Monday, Jackson’s attorney, S. Wesley Woolf, declined to comment when asked whether anyone other than his client had heard Deen speak those words.
In January, Deen announced she has Type 2 diabetes and had become a spokeswoman for a pharmaceutical company that makes a diabetes medication.