RENO, Nev. — Madeleine Pickens wanted the African-American chef she recruited from the country club she owns in Southern California to cook "black people food" — not "white people food" — at her rural Nevada dude ranch and wild horse sanctuary, according to a federal lawsuit accusing her of racial discrimination.
Armand Appling says the wealthy philanthropist and ex-wife of Oklahoma energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens told him fried chicken, BBQ ribs and corn bread would be perfect for the tourists who pay nearly $2,000 a night to stay in plush cottages, ride horses and take Wild West "safaris" on ATVs at her Mustang Monument Wild Horse Eco-Resort.
Appling alleges he was fired 2014 in retaliation for complaining about a hostile work environment. He says Pickens' stereotypical references were commonplace at the Elko County ranch stretching across 900 square miles on the edge of the Ruby Mountains about 50 miles west of the Utah line.
Among other things, he says Pickens, who is white, instructed him to terminate two other black kitchen staffers — one she referred to as her "bull" or "ox" and another who had "too much personality." He says she told him they didn't "look like people we have working at the country club" and didn't "fit the image" of the staff she wanted at the ranch.
Pickens' lawyers argue that even if all the allegations are true, none of her comments were racially motivated. At worst, Pickens' remarks "reflect a non-racial personality conflict and amount to discourtesy, rudeness or lack of sensitivity," they wrote in recent court filings.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said during a hearing in Reno last week that Appling's lawyers have failed so far to prove the sort of racial hostility needed to win such a civil rights claim. She dismissed the original lawsuit that was filed in February but gave them until Jan. 13 to refile an amended complaint seeking unspecified damages from Pickens' nonprofit, Save America's Mustangs.
"It takes a lot to prove these allegations," Du told California attorney Willie Williams on Thursday.
Du agreed with Pickens' lawyer, Dora Lane of Reno, that the only comment that specifically referred to race was the reference to "black people food."
Lane said categorizing foods by ethnicity is commonplace in the restaurant industry. Some restaurants serve Mexican food, others Chinese or Thai food, she said.
"The suggestion that such categorizations are inherently offensive is nonsense," Lane argued in earlier court documents. "This is especially true here, given that Pickens' alleged comments actually reflect a preference for 'black people food' rather than a racial animas against 'black people' or 'black people food.'"
Williams said Pickens' comments about the fired employees "not fitting in" reinforces a long history of African-Americans not being allowed into elite, private-club settings. Pickens owns the exclusive Del Mar Country Club north of San Diego where Appling worked before she hired him for a 5-month stint in Nevada.
"In many cases, the people fighting to keep African-Americans out of these private clubs would use code phrases like 'they do not fit the image,'" Williams said in court documents. He added the use of the words "ox" and "bull" implies ownership of property, given "America's long history of slavery where they were considered personal property of their owners."
Lane argued it was a complimentary reference to physical strength and "was not accompanied by any overtly racial slurs."
"Indeed, Appling does not allege that he ever heard any overtly racial epithets, such as the 'N-word,'" she wrote in court documents.
But Williams told the judge last week the comments must be viewed in the context of racial stereotypes.
Du agreed that Lane's arguments focus on the "plain meaning of words" while seemingly ignoring the context of comments made about "African-Americans in history and stereotypes that could give rise to racial animas."
"If the alleged comments were not directed at him, but others who look like him, it may affect his work environment," the judge said.