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White former Starbucks regional manager awarded $25M after jury determines she was fired because of her race
Screenshot of CBS Philadelphia YouTube video

White former Starbucks regional manager awarded $25M after jury determines she was fired because of her race

A white woman who formerly worked as a regional manager for Starbucks has won a civil rights lawsuit in which she claimed that she was fired because of her race.

On Monday, a federal jury awarded Shannon Phillips a whopping $25 million in punitive damages and an additional $600,000 in compensatory damages after members unanimously agreed that Starbucks had fired her on racial grounds. "I was terminated because I am white," Phillips said in court documents filed in 2019. "If I was black, I would not have been terminated. I was terminated because I complained of and objected to race discrimination."

The circumstances surrounding Phillips' termination began five years ago, when two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were infamously arrested at a Starbucks store in Philadelphia after employees told them they could not use the store restrooms unless they first made a purchase. The men refused to leave or purchase anything, insisting that they were still waiting on a third party. Because of their intransigence that day, an employee eventually called the cops, and the two were arrested, though they were never charged with any crime.

Starbucks executives appeared to panic in the immediate fallout over the men's arrest, which made national news. Kevin Johnson, who was CEO at the time, rushed to Philadelphia to apologize to the men. He also ordered 8,000 Starbucks stores to close for an afternoon so that nearly 175,000 company employees could undergo racial sensitivity training.

Phillips, who worked for Starbucks for 13 years, was not the manager on duty when the arrest took place, nor was she involved in the decision to call police on Nelson and Robinson. In fact, she was a regional director responsible for overseeing 100 stores spanning parts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and had little input in the day-to-day operations of those establishments.

Yet she alleged in the lawsuit that she and other white employees became scapegoats, suspended or let go from their jobs "to convince the community that [Starbucks] had properly responded to the incident." Soon after it happened, Phillips claimed she was ordered to place a white manager, who had been with the company for 15 years, on administrative leave for supposed racial discrimination, even though Phillips did not believe the man had done anything wrong.

Senior officials had received a complaint that non-white employees working at the man's store were paid less than white employees, but Phillips countered that, even if the accusation were true, the manager could not be held responsible since local managers have no say in employee compensation, per company policy. After Phillips refused to suspend the man, she was fired with the explanation that "the situation is not recoverable," the complaint said.

Phillips also noted in court documents that the district manager of the store where the arrests occurred is black but that he had not been reprimanded or otherwise penalized for his connection with the incident.

After she was fired, Phillips said she was replaced with "substantially less qualified employees who had not complained of race discrimination." Starbucks denied the accusations at the time and claimed that Phillips had been terminated for demonstrating poor leadership during the incident, which the company characterized as a "crisis."

After the jury rendered its verdict on Monday, Starbucks spokesperson Jaci Anderson expressed disappointment and told CNN that the company would soon be evaluating its next steps.

By contrast, Phillips is celebrating the decision, claiming she is "very pleased" with the outcome. However, she also indicated that she is still going to seek back pay from Starbucks. According to the Daily Mail, Phillips may have earned up to $200,000 a year during her time with the company.

The following is a news report from three years ago, shortly after the lawsuit was filed:

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