SAVANNAH, Ga. (CN) - A state judge refused to restrict pretrial comments in a sexual harassment lawsuit against celebrity chef Paula Deen and her companies.
Former employee Lisa T. Jackson this month sued Paula Deen, several of her companies, including her Savannah-based restaurant The Lady & Sons, and Deen's brother Bubba Hiers, in Chatham County Superior Court.
In her lawsuit, Jackson, the former general manager of Uncle Bubba's, a restaurant co-owned by Deen and Hiers, claims Hiers created a hostile work environment and subjected employees to sexual harassment, physical intimidation and racial slurs.
She claims Hiers watched Internet pornography at the restaurant, drank on the job, made sexually charged comments to her and other staff members, and kissed and spat at her.
Jackson claimed Paula Deen condoned an atmosphere of sexual harassment and racism in the workplace and made racial remarks herself.
In an emergency motion filed on March 6, Deen claimed that Jackson and her attorney, S. Wesley Woolf, "fully intend to cause defendants economic and personal ruin and to prospectively influence the jury pool" by talking to the press before trial.
"This plan of action deprives defendants of an opportunity to fairly confront the allegations against them and instead tries the case in the court of public opinion," the motion states.
Deen claims Jackson and Woolf engaged in "media warfare" to damage her reputation and her business after she refused a settlement offer from Jackson's attorney.
"Plaintiff's complaint contains highly inflammatory allegations of sexism, racism, and employee mistreatment," the motion states. "For a public figure such as Mrs. Deen, even if Ms. Jackson's allegations are proven untrue, the harm resulting from the continuing mass dissemination of the allegations may never be undone."
Deen became famous for her televised cooking shows and her best-selling cook books which feature Southern cuisine.
According to the 8-page motion and an attached letter to one of Deen's lawyers, Jackson and her attorney threatened to take the lawsuit to every major media outlet unless Deen agreed to pay $1.25 million.
"'If we are unable to settle, the complaint will not be quietly filed,'" the motion states, citing Woolf's alleged Jan. 31 letter to Deen's attorney. "'I am making arrangements for a press conference on the day of filing. I have identified the journalist for the New York Times who covers civil rights matters and he will be provided a pre-filing exclusive. A nationwide press release will be issued to the major networks, newspapers, newsmagazines and news websites across the country.'"
The motion adds: "A protective order is necessary because Ms. Jackson and her counsel have made abundantly clear that they intend to engage in a path of personal and financial destruction because defendants would not pay their pretrial settlement demand."
But Chatham County Superior Court Judge Louisa Abbot rejected Deen's request for a gag order, finding that "the litigants' concerns about potentially adverse pretrial publicity and the potential effect of damage to their reputations do not outweigh any of the constitutional principles invoked by this motion, including freedom of press and speech."
Abbot said that Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, the U.S. Supreme Court decision invoked by Deen, which held that extrajudicial statements by lawyers must be balanced against the interest in fair trials, involved an underlying criminal case, and that civil trials such as the action against Deen may be less sensitive to pre-trial comments.
Deen and her co-defendants may seek other remedies for alleged misconduct involving extrajudicial comments, Judge Abbot wrote.
Paula Deen's attorney Greg Hodges, a partner at Savannah-based Oliver Maner law firm, refused to comment on the litigation.
"We do not comment on pending litigation and, accordingly, can't discuss the case with you except to say that we have previously issued a press release and there have been additional motions filed with the court which are a matter of public record," Hodges told Courthouse News this week.
On March 6, the Oliver Maner law firm said in a statement: "Ms. Jackson did work for Uncle Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House, and she did some work for Paula Deen Enterprises, LLC. She now claims that she was mistreated during her employment. We investigated those claims and attempted unsuccessfully to address those claims with her. She has made baseless, inflammatory allegations, threatening to go to the press and ruin Paula Deen's reputation and the reputation of her businesses unless we paid her a large sum of money. We refused to bow to that kind of pressure and refused to pay money to address false claims. Ms. Jackson's complaint makes false allegations against Paula Deen and they will be proven false in court. We have filed our defensive pleadings with the court denying Ms. Jackson's claims and those pleadings are a matter of public record. We will hold Ms. Jackson and her lawyer accountable for these false allegations. We look forward to our day in court and have nothing further to say."