Starbucks discrimination lawsuit awarded white employee $25 million: Legal experts weigh in

Shannon Phillips received $25.6 million in damages after a six-day trial.

June 16, 2023, 4:16 PM

A federal jury this week found that Starbucks discriminated against a white manager who was fired amid an uproar over the company's treatment of Black customers at a store in Philadelphia five years ago.

The ex-manager, Shannon Phillips, received $25.6 million in damages after a six-day trial, Phillips' attorneys previously told ABC News.

The resolution of a lawsuit against one of the nation's largest employers drew attention to the standard for proving discrimination as well as the federal protection against bias afforded to all racial groups, regardless of whether they've faced historical marginalization, experts told ABC News.

The jury appears to have been persuaded in part by the argument that Phillips was fired as part of a public relations effort undertaken by Starbucks in response to racial justice backlash, which may carry implications for how corporations act in such circumstances, experts added.

Starbucks did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment. In court documents, the company rejected allegations of discrimination, saying that it disciplined Phillips for "legitimate, nondiscriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons."

Here's what to know about the Starbucks discrimination case and its implications, according to legal experts:

Why did the jury find that race played a role in the firing of the Starbucks employee?

In 2018, two Black men -- Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson -- were arrested at a Philadelphia-area Starbucks store after an employee called 911 and accused them of trespassing because they had not made a purchase.

The two men later reached a private settlement with Starbucks and the City of Philadelphia, which agreed to pay each of the men $1 and establish a $200,000 fund for young entrepreneurs.

Phillips, a then-regional director who had worked at the company for nearly 13 years, was terminated less than a month after the incident.

In an initial lawsuit filed by Phillips in 2019, she said she was not at the store that day nor involved in the lead-up to the arrests, alleging instead that her race played a "determinative role" in her termination.

A key piece of evidence in the case centered on testimony from a Black district manager who said he thought race had played a role in Starbucks' decision to fire Phillips and allow him to remain with the company, Phillips' attorney previously told ABC News.

Legal experts concurred with that assessment, saying that the plaintiff's ability to point to disparate treatment of a relevant employee was critical to the jury's finding of discrimination.

"My understanding is that in these cases what you have to have is a comparative," Rick Rossein, a professor of employee discrimination law at the City University of New York Law School, told ABC News. "Here you have a Starbucks manager giving that type of testimony."

In court documents, Starbucks contested this account of its actions, saying instead that it disciplined Phillips based on poor performance. Phillips "appeared overwhelmed, frozen and lacked awareness of how critical the situation was for Starbucks and its partners," the company claimed.

Phillips appeared to further persuade the jury with her explanation for the alleged mistreatment, describing her firing as part of the company's effort to minimize the public relations fallout from the arrests, the experts added.

"Evidence points to Starbucks taking action against an employee in order to address public opinion as opposed to really addressing the question of who was involved in making that decision," Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor and employment law at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told ABC News.

Is it unusual for workplace discrimination cases to be brought on behalf of white people?

Phillips’ case is unusual because the majority of cases alleging a violation of federal discrimination law on the basis of race involve non-white people, legal experts told ABC News.

Legal precedent that reaches as high as the Supreme Court affirms that the measure at issue, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, protects white workers who experience discrimination, they added.

"Anti-discrimination law that deals with race discrimination applies to any allegation of race discrimination whether it would be against a white employee, a Black employee or another racial group," Lieberwitz said.

While discrimination lawsuits on behalf of white individuals are uncommon, white plaintiffs have proven more likely to succeed than non-white ones when federal judges adjudicate their racial discrimination claims, said Wendy Greene, a professor of anti-discrimination law at Drexel University Law School and the director of the Center for Law, Policy and Social Action.

"The surprise for many people, however, is that federal civil rights laws initially designed to address the longstanding, systemic racial segregation, exclusion and discrimination endured by individuals identifying as non-white are seemingly more effective at redressing racial discrimination against individuals who identify as white," Greene told ABC News.

What are the implications of the finding that Starbucks discriminated in this case?

The decision in this case could heighten scrutiny of large companies in their treatment of workers who belong to groups protected against discrimination as well as complicate efforts to discipline workers charged with improving a company's performance on racial justice issues, experts said.

"We're in the era where people are looking very carefully at decision-making by major corporations," Rosstein said.

Greene, meanwhile, said that the decision could make it more difficult for companies to supervise workers involved in the implementation of racial justice initiatives, since companies could be accused of racial discrimination if they discipline such employees.

Management must balance the need to create a work environment free of racial discrimination with a simultaneous commitment to "ensure workplaces are free of racial exclusion and subordination, which are often couched as acts of racial discrimination against white employees in favor of non-white people," Greene said.

The large award for damages in the Starbucks case could "discourage employers from disciplining or terminating employees they believe are not effectively handling complaints of discrimination," she added.

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