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Jury awards $25.6 million to white Starbucks manager who says her 2018 firing was racial discrimination


A man tapes a sign to a door at a Starbucks Coffee shop, Tuesday, May 29, 2018, in Philadelphia. After the arrests of two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, at this location, Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores nationwide for one day to conduct anti-bias training (AP Photo/Matt Slocum).

A former regional manager at Starbucks won a $25.6 million verdict Friday after she accused the coffee chain of firing her for being white in response to a national backlash over the arrest of two Black men at one of its Philadelphia cafes.

A federal jury in New Jersey awarded the whopping payout to Shannon Phillips, a former regional manager who was at the center of a 2018 incident that became a public relations debacle for the corporation that has long been known for supporting progressive values. In April of that year, bystander video showed two Black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, being arrested at the coffee chain’s 18th and Spruce Street location as they were waiting to meet an acquaintance.

Video of the arrest went viral, sparking protests and calls for boycotts. The following month, 8,000 Starbucks stores closed for the day while 175,000 employees of the coffee megachain underwent racial bias education — and Phillips, whose job it had been to oversee 100 stores, was fired.

In January 2020, she sued in federal court, accusing the coffee giant of racial discrimination and alleging that she was fired because she is white.

In her complaint, she essentially accused Starbucks of virtue signaling — making a show of being committed to social and racial justice while taking no effective action. Phillips said in her filing that she “worked tirelessly” to help Starbucks repair its image after the event in Philadelphia, but that Starbucks’s attempts to ameliorate community relations resulted in discrimination against white employees. She also alleged that she and a number of white employees who had not been not involved in the arrests were punished so that Starbucks could make a show of responding to the allegations of racial discrimination.

Phillips said she was forced to put a white employee with no connection to the arrest on administrative leave because of a separate and false allegation of racial discrimination. Meanwhile, the manager of the Starbucks where the arrest occurred, who was Black, was not disciplined at all, Phillips said.

A jury took Phillips’ side at trial, awarding her $300,000 to compensate her for federal race discrimination and another $300,000 for state race discrimination. But the more significant outcome was an award of $25 million in punitive damages, also split equally between Phillips’s state and federal claims. The eight-member jury deliberated for nearly five hours before determining that Phillips’s skin color played a key role in her termination.

At the time of the men’s arrest, Starbucks customer Melissa DePino, who had taken the video, said that the men “never raised their voices,” and, “never did anything remotely aggressive.” Although they were purportedly arrested for allegedly refusing to either make a purchase or leave the store after being asked to do so by Starbucks staff, neither ended up facing criminal charges relating to the event. When DePino’s video went viral, public outcry demanded that Phillips, whose call to the police had precipitated police involvement, be fired.

Following the incident, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross insisted the arresting officers involved “did absolutely nothing wrong, and they did a service they were called to do.” Starbucks appeared to shoulder the full blame and issued a formal apology to the men who were arrested. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson publicly denounced Robinson and Nelson’s arrest as a “reprehensible outcome.”

Law&Crime reached out to Phillips’s lawyer for comment, but did not receive an immediate response. Starbucks declined to comment.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos