Paula Deen Lawsuit Illustrates Dangers Of A Belligerent Defense

Most people have by now heard of the travails of celebrity chef Paula Deen, whose business empire and sponsorships crumbled this Summer following revelations from a civil lawsuit that she had used the N-word in the past and was part of other potentially offensive racially charged activities. This post is not to defend Ms. Deen nor, frankly, to argue that she deserved the enormous backlash and financial consequences that came from the revelations of apparently long ago conduct. Rather, the question is “Why?”
The lawsuit in question arose when a white employee of one of Ms. Deen’s restaurants sued her for discrimination, alleging sexual discrimination and a racially inhospitable work environment. At some point during the litigation, the attorneys for the plaintiff scheduled and took the deposition of Ms. Deen, during which numerous questions were asked about the racial allegations, Ms. Deen’s use of the N-word, etc. It was that deposition, and specifically the public release of the deposition testimony (by the attorneys for the plaintiff?), that led to the media firestorm and the destruction of Ms. Deen’s empire and career. But, again, “Why?”
This week, the Court overseeing the lawsuit against Ms. Deen, not surprisingly, dismissed the claims arising from racial discrimination. According to media reports, the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed because as a white woman she didn’t have standing to seek damages for discrimination against non-whites. That comes as no surprise to me and I doubt it does to any lawyer practicing in employment discrimination. If these claims had been eliminated earlier in the lawsuit, the deposition questions relating to race would have been objectionable and likely the attorneys could have prevented Ms. Deen from having to answer such questions. The whole firestorm could have been avoided, perhaps. But it didn’t need to come to that.

Ms. Deen had been an enormously successful TV personality for years, with huge ratings on television along with numerous cookbooks, appearances, all in addition to several restaurants which she owned or was associated with. The real question to me, is why on Earth did Ms. Deen (or her attorneys) stubbornly battle a racially charged lawsuit to the point where evidence was uncovered that destroyed her career. The lawsuit could have likely been bought off for pennies — and, given the revelations, that wouldn’t have been buying off a frivolous lawsuit but actually paying a reasonable settlement for a meritorious one. But even if it were buying off a frivolous lawsuit (the racial allegations were dismissed), so what? An individual or business with Ms. Deen’s resources has far too much at stake to play such a high stakes game.

There are numerous potential costs to any litigation matter — a potential adverse judgment is only one such cost. There are also costs of defense (attorney’s fees), costs of business disruption, emotional toll, and (as here) negative publicity. Attorneys must discuss all potential costs of a lawsuit with their clients, whether they are defendants or plaintiffs, and make sure that the client understands and makes an informed choice about the strategy to pursue in the litigation. In Paula Deen’s case, it seems to me that either Ms. Deen’s lawyers, or Ms. Deen herself, ignored the tangential costs and risks associated with litigation to her enormous detriment.