Former Starbucks manager, Shannon Phillips, awarded $25.6 million for being fired due to anti-whiteism.
A federal jury in New Jersey found the company had fired Phillips from her position because she was white, which violated her civil rights.
The incident leading to Phillips’ termination occurred in 2018 at the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood location in Philadelphia. It involved two black men in their 20s, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who were waiting for a business meeting when Nelson was denied permission to use the restroom due to not making a purchase.
Subsequently, a store employee approached Nelson and Robinson to offer assistance, which they declined. Shortly after, police were called by staff, and the pair was handcuffed and escorted out of the cafe. The arrests were captured on video and widely shared, sparking protests and leading to the temporary closure of all stores for anti-bias training.
Phillips, who served as a regional manager overseeing multiple Starbucks coffee shops, was terminated following the incident. In 2019, she filed a lawsuit against her former employer, claiming that her race played a significant role in her dismissal. According to her lawyers, Phillips was made a “scapegoat” by upper management seeking to demonstrate action being taken in response to the incident involving the two black men.
According to the lawsuit, Phillips, a former regional manager, claimed that she worked tirelessly to mend community relations in the aftermath of the controversy. In her role, she oversaw approximately 100 stores spanning Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
Phillips alleged that Starbucks, weeks later, began penalizing white employees who were not involved in the incident as a means of demonstrating their proactive response to the situation publicly.
The former regional manager further asserted that the company instructed her to place a white male manager, who had been with Starbucks for 15 years, on administrative leave due to a race discrimination allegation. The allegation stemmed from complaints made by non-white employees at that manager’s store, suggesting pay disparities between non-white and white workers.
Phillips argued that the male manager did not have authority over wage decisions. The lawsuit also stated that she objected to his suspension, as she believed the manager was not racist and had never witnessed him engage in discriminatory behavior.
In contrast, Phillips highlighted that no disciplinary action was taken against the black manager of the store where the arrests occurred. She claimed that it was the subordinate of the black manager who contacted emergency services after the two men sat down and refused to leave when informed that they needed to make a purchase to use the bathroom.
Soon after these events, Phillips alleged that she was terminated and informed that the “situation is not recoverable.” Starbucks has denied the claims put forth in the lawsuit but has refrained from commenting on the outcome of the case.
On Monday, a federal jury in Camden, New Jersey, ruled in favor of Phillips, agreeing with her claims and awarding her $600,000 in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages. The jury determined that Starbucks had violated her federal civil rights as well as a New Jersey law prohibiting race-based discrimination.
Helen Rella, an employment attorney from Wilk Auslander, noted the unusual nature of the case, as anti-discrimination laws traditionally focus on protecting individuals from minority groups. Rella stated that the decision in the Starbucks case signifies that all races are protected from discrimination, emphasizing the need for employers to carefully consider their actions to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws across the board.