In an example of how informal management can come back to haunt employers, a U.S. District Court judge recently ruled that a former Starbucks regional manager had sufficiently demonstrated that a jury could determine that the justification Starbucks provided in terminating her was pretext for unlawful discrimination.
Plaintiff Shannon Phillips, who is Caucasian, claims that Starbucks discriminated against her and other white employees to repair its public image after drawing negative media attention for the 2018 arrest of two Black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, alleging reverse discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Starbucks denies engaging in discrimination, alleging that Plaintiff was terminated for failing to lead and perform her role as a regional manager and, more specifically, was aloof, overwhelmed by the position, and failed to perform the essential functions of her job.
On Starbucks’ motion for summary judgment, the judge determined that Plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence allowing a reasonable jury to conclude that the company discriminated against her and other white employees. The judge further found, however, that Starbucks presented a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Plaintiff’s termination. As part of the burden-shifting analysis conducted in discrimination claims, when an employer produces sufficient evidence of legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the employee’s termination, the employee must then provide evidence that the employer’s reasons were pretext for discrimination. As it applied to Plaintiff’s claim of discrimination, the judge found that she had presented sufficient evidence creating a genuine dispute of material fact that Starbucks’ stated rationale for terminating her constituted pretext.