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Paula Deen wins court battle that crumbled her empire. Does it matter?

Paula Deen scored a legal win Monday when a federal judge dismissed a racial discrimination lawsuit from a former employee. But it may be a hollow victory for Paula Deen, who lost her TV shows and endorsement deals in the wake of details revealed in the case. 

By Schuyler VelascoStaff writer / August 13, 2013

In this publicity image released by NBC, celebrity chef Paula Deen appears on NBC's "Today" show in June in New York. A federal judge dismissed a racial discrimination case against Ms. Deen, but experts feel the damage to her reputation is already done.

Peter Kramer/AP/File

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At the end of a nightmarish summer for Paula Deen, the legal battle at the heart of her downfall has ultimately swung her way. But the details of the lawsuit may have already done more damage than a court ruling against the polarizing celebrity chef ever could.

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Monday, a federal judge dismissed a racial discrimination lawsuit brought on by Lisa Jackson, a white, former employee at one of Ms. Deen’s restaurants in Savannah, Ga. Ms. Jackson had claimed that widespread discrimination against black workers made the workplace environment difficult for her. However, Judge William T. Moore Jr., of the Federal District Court in Savannah ruled that Ms. Jackson didn’t qualify for racial discrimination protection under federal law, calling her no more than “an accidental victim of the alleged racial discrimination.”

He went on to say that allowing Jackson’s suit to go forward would “serve to conscript federal courts as human-resources departments that are responsible for imposing and monitoring a federally created standard for harmony in the workplace.”

Deen’s camp was pleased with the outcome, and released the following statement through spokeswoman Elana Weiss Rose: “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.”

But the victory may be a hollow one. Unfounded or no, Jackson’s lawsuit set off a speedy chain of events that culminated in the end of her run on television and the loss of millions in licensing and endorsement deals. First, she admitted in a court deposition that she had used the 'N-word' in the past. From there, additional case-related details, including her alleged desire to use an all-black waitstaff at to cater a Southern plantation-style wedding, further painted Deen as a racist. A series of ill-received public apologies later, and she was dropped from the Food Network, sponsors fled in droves, and a cookbook set for a fall release was canceled.

Public relations experts doubt the case’s dismissal will reverse the tide. Some, including Reputation.com chairman Howard Bragman, speaking to USA Today, even compared her circumstance to that of OJ Simpson, “who won in the court of law but lost in the court of public opinion.... You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube now. It's going to be really challenging for her to piece this together,” he told the newspaper.

The cuts to Deen’s reputation have only gotten deeper since the Food Network dropped her in June. Last month, The New York Times published a profile of Dora Charles, a cook who worked closely with Deen in the decades before she was a television star. In the damning Times story, Ms. Charles, who now lives in a trailer outside Savannah, claimed that Deen treated her unfairly and didn’t provide adequate financial support for Charles’ role in building the Deen empire. “I’m not trying to portray that she is a bad person,” Charles told the Times. “I’m just trying to put my story out there that she didn’t treat me fairly and I was her soul sister.”

And the legal battle isn’t over. The dismissal didn’t apply to Jackson’s allegations of sexual harassment against Deen’s brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers. That part of the case will move forward.

Deen has been absent from public view since a tearful “Today” show appearance in late June. She reportedly turned down an offer to appear on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” last week. Her supporters, meanwhile, have made plenty of noise. One movement, called “Butter for Paula,” is encouraging the chef’s fans to send protest letters written on butter wrappers to Food Network, QVC, Wal-Mart, and other corporate entities that parted ways with her in the wake of the June controversy. The “We Support Paula Deen” Facebook page currently has 612,000 fans. 

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