The decade's most triggering comedy
A federal jury awarded a white Starbucks regional manager — who was fired after staff at one of her stores called the police on two black men in 2018 — over $25 million, finding that the coffee giant fired her because of her race.
In the unanimous ruling, the jury awarded Shannon Phillips $25 million in punitive damages and $600,000 in compensatory damages. Phillips’ lawsuit against Starbucks alleged that the company fired her on the basis of her race, in violation of New Jersey law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Phillips and her lawyer, Laura Carlin Mattiacci, were “very pleased” with the unanimous verdict. Mattiacci said that “[Phillips] proved by ‘clear and convincing evidence’ that punitive damages were warranted” under New Jersey law, according to the Daily Mail.
Phillips oversaw around 100 stores in the Mid-Atlantic region, being promoted to regional manager in 2011 for “exemplary performance” as a district manager in Ohio. The company claimed that she was fired for poor performance, saying the “Philadelphia market needed a leader who could perform” and that “Ms. Phillips failed in every aspect of that role.”
One of the stores in her region was the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks in Philadelphia, which in 2018 refused bathroom access to two black men — Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. The men claimed to be waiting for a third man to meet about a real estate opportunity. After asking the men to leave, the employees called the cops and the men were arrested.
The video of the men’s arrest caused protests across the nation and prompted Starbucks to require 175,000 employees at 8,000 locations to undergo “sensitivity training.”
Weeks after the incident, Phillips claimed that Starbucks started punishing white employees to show the public they were handling the situation, even if the employees had nothing to do with the Philadelphia store’s controversy.
For instance, Phillips said one of her superiors, a black woman, ordered her to suspend Benjamin Trinsey — a white manager — because of racial discrimination allegations against him that claimed he paid ethnic minorities less than white employees. Phillips argued Trinsey was not racist and did not have a say in employees’ wages. Still, Phillips followed the directive and suspended Trinsey. Two days later, she was fired.
In contrast, Phillips said that the black manager of the Rittenhouse Square store had faced no disciplinary action. Around the same time, Paul Sykes, a black district manager under Phillips, faced numerous complaints concerning his management style. While the coffee giant investigated Trinsey and suspended him, it did not investigate Sykes.
Sykes went on to testify in the case that he heard discussions that the coffee company wanted to send a “strong message” after the racial incident and believed that Phillips’ race played a role in her firing.
Phillips claimed that the only justification given for her termination was that she had performed poorly in her role and that the “situation is not recoverable.”
The company claimed that Phillips missed important meetings and lacked awareness about how the situation at the Rittenhouse Square location was affecting Starbucks. However, Phillips presented evidence that she was fully present and even provided emotional support to many under her leadership during the controversy, including Sykes and Trinsey.
Further combating Starbucks’ claims of her negligence, Phillips said she immersed herself in the company’s efforts to restore its reputation, seeking to support hourly workers through the process. She claimed to organize store managers in her jurisdiction to help cover shifts at stores whose employees were scared of protesters.