Paula Deen Ruling Reminds Us: Title VII Protects White Employees Who Are Discriminated Against for Their Association with Black Employees

| Marcus, Ellen

"Whirlpool Washer"

Last week, a federal court in Georgia dismissed Lisa T. Jackson’s race-based discrimination claim against Paula Deen, her brother Earl “Bubba” Heirs, and their restaurant businesses.  Earlier events in the Jackson v. Deen case – including Deen’s deposition testimony and what it may mean for alter ego liability – caught our attention at Suits by Suits.  This recent ruling interests us as a reminder that it is not always the case that a white employee who works in an environment that is hostile to blacks has no claim for damages against her employer for race-based discrimination.

Jackson, who is white, contended that she had a Title VII claim because she had to work in a restaurant that was extremely hostile to black employees.  According to Jackson, Heirs repeatedly made racist jokes and used the N-word in the restaurant, and black employees (in contrast to Jackson and the other white employees) were barred from using the restaurant’s front entrance and customer restrooms.  The Georgia federal court held that Jackson was not “the person claiming to be aggrieved” by the alleged discriminatory conduct, and she therefore did not have standing to bring a claim under Title VII, which only permits “a person claiming to be aggrieved” by discriminatory conduct to file a civil complaint for damages.

Under what circumstances might Jackson be “the person claiming to be aggrieved” for purposes of Title VII?  Obviously, if she were one of the black employees subjected to the allegedly daily racial hostility in the workplace.  But, even as a white employee, there is another possibility:  if Jackson associated with the black employees and Heirs and the restaurant discriminated against her for that reason.  Barrett v. Whirlpool – a 2009 case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – supports this reading of Title VII.  In that case, there was evidence that a white employee named Treva Nickens complained to her supervisors about workplace discrimination against black co-workers, that she was harassed and threatened at work because of her relationships with a black employee and that the same relationship was used as a reason to prevent Nickens from applying for a better position at Whirlpool. 

The Sixth Circuit did not consider the “person claiming to be aggrieved” standing requirement in Title VII, but did consider whether Nickens had a claim under Title VII, which prohibits discrimination by employers against any individual with respect to her “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s . . . race.”  The court concluded that, even though Nickens was white, the evidence showed that she may have been discriminated against “because of . . . [her] race” – that is, that she was discriminated against for being a white employee who associates with black employees.