Pennsylvania Record

Friday, February 21, 2020

White woman's racism lawsuit against Starbucks could be headed to Philadelphia court

Federal Court

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jan 24, 2020

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Starbucks

TRENTON, N.J. – Starbucks is looking to transfer an employment discrimination action filed by a former regional director for the company to a Pennsylvania federal court – one which claimed it discriminated against her and other Caucasian employees in the aftermath of the controversial arrests of two African-American men at a Philadelphia store location.

On Jan. 3 and through its counsel, Starbucks sent a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Renee Marie Bumb, advocating for the case to be transferred from its current venue in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

“There is no question that (1) all of the alleged events underlying Ms. Phillips’ claims occurred in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and (2) the District of New Jersey has no connection to this lawsuit other than the fact that it is Ms. Phillips’ home district,” the defense’s letter read, in part.

“As further evidence supporting transfer, none of the witnesses for Ms. Phillips’ claims work or reside in New Jersey, but two of the witnesses work in Philadelphia.”

The company further argued public interests dictated the case be moved to a federal court in Pennsylvania.

“The Eastern District of Pennsylvania has a strong local interest in adjudicating this dispute, which stems from the arrests at a Philadelphia Starbucks store on April 12, 2018 and the events that transpired in Philadelphia thereafter. As such, Philadelphia area residents have a vested interest in this case, and the obligation of jury duty is more properly imposed on the citizens of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania than the citizens of the District of New Jersey."

In a Jan. 10 response letter, counsel for plaintiff Shannon Phillips countered that she conducted much of her work from her home office in New Jersey and that courts have traditionally given “great deference” to the plaintiff’s choice of venue.

“A transfer should not be liberally granted. Defendant’s letter is buttressed on an erroneous interpretation of the law in suggesting that plaintiff’s choice of venue should be ‘given little weight’ by this Court. Importantly, at no time does the defendant allege that venue in the District of New Jersey is improper. As a result, this Court should give the weight to plaintiff’s venue choice required by the Third Circuit and deny any motion to transfer venue,” the plaintiff counsel’s response stated.

The plaintiff’s side also argued that Starbucks failed to meet its burden to transfer the case to federal court in Pennsylvania.

Bumb issued an order in regards to the proposed motion to transfer venue on Jan. 13.

“Having read the submissions by the parties – including plaintiff's response wherein plaintiff states that she intends to file an amended complaint – the Court does not believe that a pre-motion conference would be productive at this time,” Bumb said.

“Within 10 days of the date of this order, plaintiff shall file and serve her proposed amended complaint. If, after reviewing the amended complaint, defendant still wishes to seek a transfer of venue, it shall file another pre-motion letter pursuant to this Court’s Individual Rules and Procedures.”

Back on Oct. 28, Phillips, of Woolwich Township, N.J. initially filed suit against the Seattle-based coffee giant in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

In April 2018, store customers Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson were asked to leave a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia after sitting at a table without ordering anything. The men, who did not leave because they were waiting for a business associate, were escorted out of the coffee shop in handcuffs after a store manager called police on them.

Robinson and Nelson later reached settlement agreements with both Starbucks and the City of Philadelphia. The terms included Starbucks undergoing company-wide racial sensitivity training.

Prior to her being let go, Phillips was charged with overseeing Starbucks stores in southern New Jersey, the Philadelphia area, Delaware and parts of Maryland. Two of her subordinates included district managers who oversaw stores in Philadelphia, one of whom included the district manager responsible for the store where Robinson and Nelson were arrested.

In the aftermath of the incident, Phillips claimed she worked to repair community relations after the arrests, but that “Starbucks took steps to punish white employees who weren’t involved in the incident.”

After Starbucks settled with Robinson and Nelson in early May, Phillips alleged she was asked to put one of her district managers, a Caucasian male, on suspension for allegedly paying non-white employees less than their white counterparts.

Phillips’ lawsuit said that was “factually impossible” because district managers did not have the power to set salaried employee compensation, due to Starbucks’ own internal company policies and procedures.

Phillips’ lawsuit stated that the Caucasian male district manager in question had worked for Starbucks for 15 years, and that she had never observed any racially discriminatory comments or conduct from him.

In the lawsuit, Phillips said that same district manager was not responsible for the store where Robinson and Nelson were arrested and had no connection to that incident, but that an African-American district manager who did oversee that store was neither fired nor placed on suspension.

On May 8, 2018, Phillips said she was told she would be fired due to her “situation not being recoverable,” according to her lawsuit. She alleged she was replaced by “substantially less-qualified employees who had not complained of race discrimination.”

A spokesperson for Starbucks denied the claims of Phillips’ lawsuit and said the company is prepared to defend against them in court.

The plaintiff is seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to legal fees and a declaration from the court that Starbucks violated her civil rights through unlawful employment discrimination.

The plaintiff is represented by Katherine Charbonnier Oeltjen of Console Mattiaci Law in Moorestown, N.J.

The defendant is represented by Marc David Esterow of Littler Mendelson, in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey case 1:19-cv-19432

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nick.malfitano@therecordinc.com

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