White Employee Lacks Title VII Race Discrimination Claim In Paula Deen Case

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Although most of the media attention surrounding Jackson v. Deen has focused on Paula Deen’s admission during a deposition that she used racial slurs, the underlying case presents an interesting legal question:  Can a white employee bring a Title VII discrimination claim on the basis that she was forced to endure a discriminatory and hostile working environment? A federal court in Georgia says no.  

Lisa Jackson, a former general manager at Uncle Bubba’s Seafood & Oyster House, claimed that a “racially biased attitude prevailed throughout and pervaded defendants’ restaurant operations.” Jackson, a white employee, alleged that black employees were only permitted to use the restaurant’s rear entrance, were prohibited from using customer restrooms, and were barred from working as hostesses. Jackson also alleged that Earl Hiers, Deen’s brother and co-owner, repeatedly made racist comments at work. She stated that she was personally offended by Hiers’s comments because she has biracial nieces. The restaurant’s racist atmosphere allegedly caused Jackson “immense personal and work related emotional and physical distress” because employees came to her for help that she could not provide. She alleged discrimination and a hostile work environment based on race in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The defendants moved to dismiss for lack of standing.

At the center of the court’s analysis is the “zone of interests” test, whereby a plaintiff has standing only if she “falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for [her] complaint.” Applying this to Title VII, the court held that Jackson lacked standing because “her interests are not those arguably sought to be protected by that statute,” and at best, she was an “accidental victim” of discrimination. The court found that the alleged deprivation of Jackson’s right to “harmonious working relationships” with black employees and the right to work in an environment “free from racial harassment” were not the type of interests protected by Title VII.

Going one step further, the court held that allowing this type of claim to proceed would turn federal courts into human resources departments “responsible for imposing and monitoring a federally created standard for harmony in the workplace.” Because “workplace harmony” is not a protectable interest under Title VII and Jackson failed to allege that she was the target of discrimination, the court dismissed the claim. In essence, the court held that being part of a workplace where discrimination occurred was simply not enough, unless a plaintiff was the intended target of the discriminatory conduct.

Although this case does not represent a departure from established case law, it addresses a novel theory not often used in discrimination cases. Due to the high profile nature of the case and the uniqueness of the arguments raised, an appeal is possible, if not probable. We will continue to monitor any new developments from this case as they arise.