A white former Starbucks manager filed a lawsuit against the coffee giant this week, alleging she was the victim of racial discrimination when she was terminated last year after the highly controversial arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia store.
Shannon Phillips alleges she’d been a “loyal” Starbucks employee for 13 years, managing hundreds of stores in several states, when she was one of several white employees wrongfully terminated in the aftermath of the April 2018 arrests of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. The two black men, both 23 at the time, were arrested at a Starbucks while waiting for a business meeting.
“Weeks after the arrests and surrounding media coverage, [Starbucks] took steps to punish white employees who had not been involved in the arrests, but who work in and around the city of Philadelphia, in an effort to convince the community that it had properly responded to the incident,” the lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for New Jersey alleges.
On April 12, 2018, Philadelphia authorities responded to a call from a Starbucks employee at the Center City coffee shop, claiming the two men were “refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Following their arrest, which was caught on video and quickly went viral, the men were detained by police for eight hours before they were released for “lack of evidence.”
“None of the white customers were asked to leave, and they were there a lot longer than those young men who were just there for a few minutes,” Stewart Cohen, who represents the two men, told CBS News after the arrest.
The incident sparked a national outcry, with many accusing the police and the international coffee conglomerate of racism. The city’s police commissioner was forced to apologize after saying the officers did nothing wrong in the immediate aftermath of the arrests.
“It is me who in large part made most of the situation worse than it was,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said at the time. “So for that, it is my sincere apology to those two men, and even to these officers and to the other people in this city who I have failed in a variety of ways on this incident.”
Starbucks did not press any charges and issued its own public apology by closing more than 8,000 stores nationwide one May morning for racial sensitivity training.
Phillips now alleges that in an effort to do extreme damage control, the company went after its white employees.
Phillips claims that a month after the arrests, Starbucks forced her to suspend a 15-year “white employee (who had not had any involvement in the arrests)” for “an allegation of discriminatory conduct” that she knew to be false.
In a meeting between the former employee and her superiors, Phillips was told her colleague allegedly paid non-white employees more than white employees. Despite providing information to refute the “factually impossible” allegations, the lawsuit states, Phillips was “ignored.” The lawsuit insists the allegations were baseless since Starbucks store managers do not determine employee salaries.
The day after the meeting, Phillips says she was called into a meeting to “negotiate her separation package as she was being terminated.”
“The only reason given for her pending termination was ‘the situation is not recoverable,’” the lawsuit alleges, claiming the excuse was a “pre-text for race discrimination.”
The former Starbucks employee is now seeking a jury trial and compensatory and punitive damages, the lawsuit states, for the “embarrassment, humiliation, loss of self-esteem, mental anguish, and loss of life’s pleasures” the termination caused.
“We deny the claims of the lawsuit and are prepared to defend our case in court,” a spokesman told The Daily Beast over the phone.
Nelson and Robinson reached an undisclosed settlement with Starbucks weeks after the incident, which included an offer for free college tuition through an ongoing program with Arizona State University provided to all employees. In a separate, more symbolic deal, the City of Philadelphia reached a settlement with the pair for $1 each in addition to establishing a $200,000 high school program for young entrepreneurs.
The attorneys for Phillips or the two men did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.