CAMDEN, NJ (AP) — A federal jury has awarded $25.6 million to a former Starbucks regional manager who alleged she and other white employees were unfair after the high-profile 2018 arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia location been punished.
Shannon Phillips was awarded $600,000 in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages Monday after a New Jersey jury found race was a determining factor in Phillips' firing, violating antidiscrimination rules violates federal and state levels.
In April 2018, a Philadelphia store manager called the police about two black men sitting in the coffee shop without ordering anything. Phillips, then regional operations manager in Philadelphia, southern New Jersey and elsewhere, was not involved in any arrests. However, she said she was ordered to place a white manager, who was also not involved, on administrative leave for reasons she knew were wrong, her lawsuit states.
Phillips said she was fired less than a month later after appealing the manager's furlough amid the uproar, according to her lawsuit.
According to the complaint, the company's rationale for suspending the district manager, who was not responsible for the store where the arrests took place, was that black store managers were paid less than whites. Phillips said the argument doesn't make sense because district managers have no say in employee salaries.
The lawsuit alleged that Starbucks was instead taking steps to penalize “white employees” who worked in the area “to convince the community that it responded appropriately to the incident.”
During Friday's closing arguments, Phillips' attorney Laura Mattiacci told jurors the company was looking for a “sacrificial lamb” to calm the outrage and show it was taking action, Law360 reported. Choosing a black employee for such a purpose “would have blown them out,” she said.
Starbucks denied Phillips' allegations, saying the company needed someone with a track record of “strength and determination” in a crisis and replaced her with a regional manager with such experience, including dealing with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings 2013, reported Law360.
Phillips' attorney, however, cited earlier testimony from a black district manager in charge of the store where the arrests took place, who described Phillips as someone loved by her colleagues and working around the clock after the arrests.
In an email to The Associated Press, Mattiacci confirmed the amount awarded and said the judge would consider awarding back payments and future emoluments, as well as attorneys' fees. Mattiacci told the New Jersey Law Journal that she will be seeking approximately $3 million in lost wages and approximately $1 million in her fee claim. Starbucks declined to comment Tuesday.
In the April 2018 incident, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested at a Starbucks coffee shop near Tony Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia shortly after the manager called police to report that two men were refusing to make a purchase act or to leave the premises. They were later released without charge.
Video of the arrest sparked national outrage, prompting the current Starbucks CEO to personally apologize to the men. The company later settled with both men for an undisclosed sum and the offer of free college education. The company also changed store policies and closed locations across the country for an afternoon to conduct training on racial prejudice.
The two men also agreed with the city of Philadelphia for a symbolic dollar per person and a promise by officials to establish a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs. The Philadelphia Police Department has issued a new policy on how to deal with individuals accused of trespassing on private property. She warns companies against abusing police officers' authority.