Ex-Starbucks regional manager claims company discriminated against white employees after wrongful arrests

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PHILADELPHIA — The former regional director for Starbucks claims she was fired because she was white less than a month after the wrongful arrests last year of two Black men at the coffee giant’s Rittenhouse Square location.

Shannon Phillips, of Woolwich Township in Gloucester County, claims that she spent the weeks between the arrests and the termination of her employment working “tirelessly” on behalf of Starbucks to repair community relations.

That work, she claims in a federal lawsuit filed this week, included disciplining a white district manager who did not oversee the store where the arrests occurred because of “allegations of discriminatory conduct that [she] knew to be false.” Phillips claims she protested the action.

The disciplinary actions were part of Starbucks’ efforts “to convince the community that it had properly responded to the incident,” the lawsuit says.

Phillips further claims that a Black district manager who was responsible for the Rittenhouse Square location and managed the employee who called the police on Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson was not disciplined.

“The race discrimination and retaliation because of my complaints of race discrimination to which I have been subjected… has caused me emotional distress,” Phillips said in an EEOC Charge of Discrimination filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and included as an exhibit in the lawsuit.

Phillips is seeking unspecified monetary damages to make up for lost earnings and benefits, “emotional upset, mental anguish, humiliation, and loss of life’s pleasures.”

Starbucks executives deny the claims in the lawsuit and the company is prepared to defend itself in court, a spokesman said.

Phillips, who is white, had worked for Starbucks for 13 years before she was fired. As regional director, she oversaw Starbucks locations throughout the Philadelphia region, southern New Jersey, Delaware and parts of Maryland.

Phillips said in the lawsuit that she received numerous positive performance evaluations and merit-based bonuses, including a bonus in April 2018.

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On April 12, 2018, a supervisor at the Rittenhouse Square location called the police when Nelson and Robinson, two Black men, sat down in the café without ordering anything. Nelson and Robinson were there for a meeting, but were arrested before the meeting could occur.

Another Starbucks patron recorded video of the arrests and posted it to Twitter, where it quickly went viral.

The backlash against Starbucks was swift and widespread. Community members protested outside the Rittenhouse Square location and across the country.

Some of Starbucks’ hourly employees in Philadelphia “were afraid to come to work,” Phillips says in the lawsuit, so she organized teams of management-level employees to work at the chain’s Center City locations.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson issued a video apology with a promise to “fix this.” The chain also closed all of its stores for diversity training.

In the meantime, Phillips says in the lawsuit, she worked with her supervisors to understand what happened and determine appropriate next steps, and organized roundtable events in Philadelphia for company founder Howard Schultz.

Phillips says she was told early in May to take a weekend off so Starbucks executives could meet with employees without Phillips. When she returned to work, Phillips says, she was instructed to suspend the white district manager because non-white salaried managers at his stores complained that they were paid less than white employees.

Phillips says she objected because Starbucks’ Partner Resources division reviews applications and sets salaries, and the white district manager did not have any input on employee salaries. She also claims that the white district manager “is not racist” and she had never seen him make any discriminatory comments or behaviors.

The next day, Phillips says, she was fired and the reason she was given was that “the situation is not recoverable.”

“I was terminated because I am white,” Phillips says in the EEOC Charge of Discrimination. “If I was black, I would not have been terminated.”

Phillips’ attorney and representatives of Starbucks could not immediately be reached for comment.

Christina Kristofic is the city editor of The Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.