Two African American plaintiffs claim they were exposed to unlawful employment practices while working at a Dallas law firm in a recent lawsuit that the alleges the firm's white staff served fried chicken and Big Red soda to its black employees during a Juneteenth celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery in Texas.

However, one of the defendants in Erica Cornelius and Julius Jackson v. Eberstein & Witherite et al., which was filed on August 2 in Dallas County Court-at-Law No 5. alleges the plaintiffs were fired from their support staff positions because their work was "very substandard" and their lawsuit amounts to "legal extortion."

"We serve a very diverse community, the majority of whom are minorities. And we are committed to taking care of them," says Amy Witherite, a defendant in the suit who founded the plaintiff's firm Eberstein & Witherite with Brian A. Eberstein 15 years ago. "And in no way shape or form have Brian, myself, or anyone at this firm been discriminatory or racist."

"It's upsetting that someone would accuse me or my law firm of discrimination," says Eberstein, who is also a defendant in the lawsuit. He takes offense at the allegations in the petition. "It's the kind of inflammatory allegation you can get away with in a lawsuit because it's protected. But if you said that in another context, we'd sue you," he says.

The background to Cornelius, according to the plaintiff's original petition, is as follows.

In June 2012, Eberstein & Witherite's management team made up of white employees decided to celebrate Juneteenth "by serving up fried chicken and Big Red soda to its handful of African American employees only" the petition alleges. Julius Jackson, a case manager at the firm, alleges that after he complained to a firm partner about the incident, he was the subject of retaliation and reprimanded for acting "superior," the petition alleges.

On August 6, 2012, Jackson alleges he was fired and was told the reason for his termination was that the firm felt he wasn't "happy," the petition alleges.

Erica Cornelius was hired by the firm as a temporary employee one day after the alleged Juneteenth incident and later became a file clerk. She alleges the firm's human resources manager told her at one point: "Oh No. You're not going to have that mad, bitter Black attitude with me."

Cornelius also alleges after she experienced pregnancy complications, the defendants pressured her to return to work. She was also accused of being "negative" "insubordinate" and "angry." Cornelius was told she was fired on Aug 8, 2012 because the defendants "needed her to be at the office and that they too felt she wasn't 'happy,' " the petition alleges.

In the petition, Jackson and Cornelius allege violations of the Texas Labor Code for race discrimination and racially hostile work environment. Cornelius alleges gender and pregnancy discrimination under the Texas Labor Code while Jackson alleges retaliation in under that code.

William E. Reid, a partner in Dallas' Reid & Dennis who represents Jackson and Cornelius, did not return a call for comment.