TV personality/chef Paula Deen attends the 2010 CMT Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 9, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
SAVANNAH, Ga. -- (USA TODAY) The damage has been done. Southern celebrity chef Paula Deen's legal woes - arguably the most inflammatory of the claims against her - diminished on Monday, but is it too late to resurrect her once-flourishing career and empire?
Deen herself issued an upbeat statement after a federal judge in Savannah, Ga., threw out claims of racial discrimination made against her in a lawsuit filed by a former employee, Lisa Jackson, who is white.
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The judge ruled that Jackson was not the target of unlawful discrimination and is not of the race that Jackson claims was being discriminated against.
Maybe so, but in the rest of the public relations and career management worlds, heads are shaking and faces are grim.
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In the order released Monday, the judge wrote:
The Court concludes that Plaintiff is not an aggrieved party under Title VII because her interests are not those arguably sought to be protected by that statue. At best, Plaintiff is an accidental victim of the alleged racial discrimination. There are no allegations that Defendant Hiers's racially offensive comments were either directed toward Plaintiff or made with the intent to harass her.
Lisa Jackson is the former manager of Uncle Bubba's Seafood restaurant. Jackson filed the lawsuit claiming both sexual harassment and racial discrimination. The issue of sexual harassment is still set to be ruled on.
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A statement released by Deen's camp reads:
We are pleased with the Court's ruling today that Lisa Jackson's claims of race discrimination have been dismissed. As Ms. Deen has stated before , she is confident that those who truly know how she lives her life know that she believes in equal opportunity, kindness and fairness for everyone.
"The irony is thicker than her gravy," says Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com. "As I've said all along, you have to play in the court of law and you have to play in the court of public opinion. Like O.J. Simpson, who won in the court of law but lost in the court of public opinion -- Paula 's in the same situation. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube now. It's going to be really challenging for her to piece this together."
Whatever route Deen and her camp decide to go now, what's done is done. "Unfortunately, this doesn't change a lot of things. She wasn't accused of a crime and found innocent."
David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a public relations and branding agency based in Suwanee, Ga., says the legal development is too little, too late.
"The narrative has been set," he says, with an unflattering chapter added less than a month ago, when The New York Times published a profile of Deen's former cook and "soul sister," now living in a trailer. The story only reinforced the idea that Deen is "not the sweet lady we thought she was."
He says "it's death by 1,000 cuts. You get one thing to go away but you still have others popping up it seems almost simultaneously." One aspect of the lawsuit may be gone, "but where there's smoke, there's usually fire."
For one thing, Lisa Jackson's lawsuit still stands, only now it's focused only on claims of sexual harassment.
Jackson sued Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, last year, claiming she suffered from sexual harassment and racially offensive talk and employment practices during her five years as a manager of Uncle Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House. Deen is co-owner of the restaurant, which is primarily run by her brother.
In the course of a deposition in the case, Deen admitted she had used racial slurs in the past, including the N-word, under certain circumstances. When the National Enquirer published a story about what she said in June, a huge furor broke out and Deen's carefully constructed empire of restaurants, cookbooks and kitchenware, strategic business partnerships, endorsement deals and TV cooking shows began to fall apart.
She apologized, awkwardly and multiple times online and on TV. "I beg you," says Deen in one 46-second video. "I beg for your forgiveness."
She dumped her agent and her legal team. It didn't help.
Food Network dropped her. So did Wal-mart, QVC, Smithfield Foods, Home Depot, Target and more. Her publisher, Random House's Ballantine Books, canceled her forthcoming cookbook.
On the good side, close friends, relatives, her former chef and some columnists defended her in public. And sales of her already-in-print cookbooks surged.
Still, Deen has been damaged in ways few in her position have ever suffered and recovered from.
In his 20-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. agreed with lawyers for Deen and Hiers that Jackson has no standing to sue her former employers for what she claims was poor treatment of black workers, regardless of her claims that she was offended and placed under additional stress.
But the facts of the situation remain, notes Bragman. "It (the race-based claims) wasn't dropped because it wasn't true, it was dropped because of the race of the person in the claim."
Her messy attempt at damage control made things worse, he says. "The handling of it was so bad, and that's ultimately what took her down."
For now, Deen must continue to press forward to try to salvage what she can of both her business and her reputation. "She tries to keep the relationships she has intact. She tries to go back to the Food Network. Looks into succession of the brand, maybe the sons," says Bragman.
To a corporate sponsor, past or potential, Deen is "volatile," Johnson says. "We're still going to hear (and see) the video deposition come out at some point where she used the n-word. It's just going to reinforce" - if not exacerbate - her negative image.
"If you're a corporate sponsor, why bother with something that's controversial?" Johnson says. "They're looking at it from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. She doesn't appeal to millennials. She's alienated the African-American community." So the thinking is, why continue with, or join, "this soap opera?"
When you get an invitation to get on Dancing With the Stars, as Deen reportedly did, "you know you've jumped the shark. That's where she is right now: She's a caricature of herself," Johnson says.
Still, he thinks Deen should have accepted the show's offer, "to poke fun at herself, but I don't think that's her personality. She takes herself too seriously, and she feels that she's the victim.
"She's never really understood why people were offended" by both her use of the racial slur and the subsequent, very public, very personal meltdown.
WSAV contributed to this report.