SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Two local bartenders are fighting back against a defamation lawsuit from their former employer, the Bourbon Group. The complaint stated the defendants made false allegations about racism and a hostile work environment that cost the bar ownership group approximately $300,000 in lost revenue.
The Bourbon Group first made headlines in July, when Brandi LeCates, the wife of one of the owners made racially-charged comments on social media. Her comment stated, “Black lives don’t matter anymore than anyone else!!!! Always the same (expletives)! Bunch of (expletive)! I’m astounded by anyone that condones any of the violence and vandalism these imbeciles are carrying out!”
The outcry led to several former employees such as Kevin Mulligan and Kayleigh Wood to speak out online about concerning events they said they experienced or witnessed during their employment. The company owns three local bars and restaurants in downtown Salt Lake City – Whiskey Street, Bourbon House, and White Horse.
“It’s a big thing for us to have these conversations and to speak out and when we do see things that are wrong,” said Mulligan.
“In our opinion, her post was disrespectful, insulting, and ignorant, and reflected hate towards the movement,” said Wood.
Bourbon Group eventually issued a public apology for Brandi LeCates’ comments and pledged $10,000 to Black Lives Matter.
“The comments that were made are more than disrespectful. They are insulting and ignorant of black lives, history, and the continual movement to fight for equal rights and treatment […] We promise that we will work harder to support our community and the nationwide movement,” wrote the owners in a post on Whiskey Street’s FaceBook page on July 12th.
But the controversy didn’t end there. In early August, the Bourbon Group filed a defamation lawsuit against Mulligan and Wood. The complaint also stated there could be up to 10 more defendants if they can be identified. Several former employees, who requested to remain anonymous, confirmed to ABC4 News that they had received cease and desist letters from the ownership group.
“After they posted their apology, I kind of thought that it would end and settle down. So I was definitely surprised,” said Wood.
Mulligan added, “It did seem like that by issuing this apology, they accepted responsibility by association with Brandi. But we still ended up getting served.”
The case alleged Mulligan and Wood were disgruntled former employees and made false claims of racism and a hostile work environment as one way to retaliate.
“Wood approached [a manager at White Horse] at closing a few days after he was hired and claimed that Plaintiff [Jason] LeCates and the restaurant group were racist due to Brandi LeCates’ post on Facebook. Furthermore, […] Wood stated to [the manager] that if he did not convince the entire staff at White Horse to quit, then she would start a campaign to shame them online,” the lawsuit stated.
The document went on to say, “Wood approached [the manager] and stated to him words to the effect that, if he didn’t quit, then she would go after him for sexual harassment. Shortly thereafter, [the manager] quit.”
The lawsuit claims that Mulligan and Woods’ actions damaged the Bourbon Group’s businesses’ reputations and goodwill, led to staff quitting, and caused emotional distress to the plaintiffs.
The defendants denied the allegations made in the complaint. Mulligan and Wood’s attorney, Whitney Hulet Krogue filed a motion to dismiss three weeks after, arguing that in the document that the lawsuit is “nothing more than an effort to silence unflattering (though perhaps well-deserved) criticism.”
Additionally, the motion stated, “Plaintiffs should not be permitted to use the court system to silence or punish the expression of opinions, especially as those opinions relate to one of the most notable exigencies of our era.”
She said it’s one reason why she offered legal representation pro bono to the defendants.
“I personally really care about free speech rights. At the same, I was struck by the uneven playing field here. On one hand, you have owners of these businesses suing local bartenders in our community for what they said on Facebook,” she said. “Litigation is expensive and I don’t want to see people giving up their free speech rights because they couldn’t afford to litigate the suit.”
Krogue argued that Mulligan and Wood are protected under the first amendment because their comments were about an important political and social issue such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The first amendment serves a really, extremely important role in our society because it protects the marketplace of ideas. So this theory that by enabling people to have free and unfettered discussions, we’ll be able to move our society toward the best solution to problems,” she said. “This warrants strong constitutional protection of that speech.”
She added, “As far as the emotional distress, if [LeCates] had a claim, then the whole world would be flooded with these kinds of lawsuits.”
In an exclusive interview with ABC4 News, Mulligan and Wood expressed that while they were shocked by the lawsuit and found it hypocritical, they plan on fighting it to the end.
“We really want the focus to be on what the issues are, what the important issues are and that people come forward about issues about racism and harassment,” said Mulligan.
Wood added, “We don’t want this lawsuit to be a bigger distraction from the real issues. We think that companies should be focused on addressing racism and standing behind the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Joseph Orifici, attorney for the Bourbon Group said he had no comment when reached by ABC4 News for a response. They have until September 17th to file a response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss.