White Starbucks manager claims racial bias in her firing after arrests of 2 black men

The white, former regional manager claims racial discrimination in her firing, which came after the arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks sparked protests.
Image: Starbucks prepares to close to train staff to prevent racial discrimination in Philadelphia
People enter the Starbucks in Philadelphia's Center City to participate in staff training to prevent racial discrimination on May 29, 2018. The arrest of two black men at the Center City Starbucks sparked local and national outrage.Jessica Kourkounis / Reuters

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

A white former regional manager for Starbucks alleges in a lawsuit that she was a victim of racial discrimination when the coffee giant fired her after the arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia store last year sparked local and national outrage.

In the suit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for New Jersey, Shannon Phillips alleges she was a 13-year employee of Starbucks, overseeing stores in southern New Jersey, the Philadelphia area, Delaware and parts of Maryland, when employees at a Philadelphia store called 911 in April 2018 to say two black men were trespassing.

The men, who an attorney said were at the store for a business meeting, were arrested.

They were eventually let go after about eight hours in police custody, with a district attorney's spokesman saying there was a "lack of evidence" of a crime.

A viral video of the incident drew national headlines and sparked a wave of protests.

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Starbucks did not press any charges, but rather apologized and, on one morning the following month, closed its more than 8,000 stores across the country for racial sensitivity training.

Phillips says in her lawsuit that after the arrests she "immediately took steps to learn additional information about the events ... address strong community reaction" and "ensure the safety" of Starbucks' employees and customers.

She also "took steps to ensure that the retail locations within her area were a safe and welcoming environment for all customers, regardless of race," the suit says.

About a month after the arrests, Phillips was ordered to suspend one of her subordinates, a white 15-year employee, who was a Starbucks manager but had nothing to do with the arrests or the store where they occurred, the suit says. The manager who was responsible for the store, who is black, was not penalized.

Her bosses told her that nonwhite employees at the store whose manager they wanted her to suspend had been paid less than white employees. Phillips objected, pointing out that store managers have nothing to do with determining salaries, which are set by a different division of the company, according to the lawsuit.

The next day, Phillips was fired, with managers telling her "the situation is not recoverable.”

Phillips claims in the suit says that she regularly "received positive performance evaluations and related merit driven bonuses and salary increases." She says she would still have her job if she were not white.

A Starbucks spokesman told NBC News the company denies the lawsuit's claims: "We do not believe there is any merit to it and we’re prepared to present our case in court."

Phillips is seeking a jury trial and compensatory and punitive damages.