NEW YORK–Since its founding in Seattle 42 years, Starbucks Coffee has grown into the largest chain of coffeehouses in the world, with more than 20,000 stores in more than 60 countries. It has also built an enviable reputation as a progressive, socially conscious company with one of the most admired brands in the business world.
But that image has taken a hit recently after complaints from deaf customers that employees at two New York City Starbucks locations have treated them rudely and even refused to serve them.
Last month, a group of outraged Starbucks patrons filed a lawsuit against the company in Federal Court in Manhattan. The complainants, most of them deaf, accused the company of discriminating against deaf people. They sought an injunction and compensatory and punitive damages for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and of state and city laws.
DETAILS OF THE COMPLAINT
The events that spurred the deaf customers to take action occurred at a Starbucks on Astor Place in Manhattan’s hip East Village neighborhood. For some time, a group had been holding a monthly “Deaf Chat Coffee” there where people who are deaf and people learning American Sign Language (ASL) could network. In their suit, the complainants said that employees at that Starbucks repeatedly mistreated them and made it clear they were unwelcome.
Specifically, the suit says that at a Deaf Chat Coffee last December, employees told the group to leave an area of the cafe because it was going to be cleaned. But instead of cleaning the area, they let other patrons move into the area. That same day, one of the plaintiffs, Sean Finnerty, says he tried to place an order by writing what he wanted on a piece of paper, but the employee he gave it to refused to serve him. When Finnerty asked why, he says that the employee informed him in writing that Starbucks was not serving deaf individuals.
Finnerty, who says he felt “shocked, humiliated, and disgusted” by this treatment, told the rest of his group what had happened. Several then tried to place orders, but were also refused service, the suit charges. One plaintiff testified that she had to resort to ask a hearing customer, someone she had never met, to order for her. When the deaf customers protested to the staff, one employee reportedly told them that the manager had told him not serve deaf customers.
Despite this incident, the group continued to gather at the Astor Place Starbucks, and the suit alleges, continued to face discrimination. Things came to a head in March 2013 when, the plaintiffs charge, the manager called the police. They say he told the police that the deaf people were meeting without a license, that many of them were not buying anything, and that they were creating a disturbance.
According to the suit, when police responded and found no illegal conduct, they apologized to the deaf customers and reprimanded Starbucks employees for calling them. The plaintiffs add, the employees made no apology and told them that they were unwelcome.
Initially, the customers e-mailed a complaint to the company’s management. A regional vice-president responded with an apology for the “inconvenience we caused you and your friends” and an offer of a preloaded Starbucks gift card.
That did not satisfy the plaintiffs, because, they say, the company failed to do anything to address the underlying discrimination, such as investigating the facts or disciplining employees. They decide to file suit.
One plaintiff, Alan Stone complained of being mistreated on another occasion at a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. He said that an employee mocked how he spoke and, when Stone complained, screamed obscenities at him.
Along with asking for compensatory and punitive damages, the plaintiffs, who are represented by Eric Baum of Eisenberg & Baum, are seeking to compel Starbucks to conduct sensitivity training for employees and adopt policies to better serve deaf customers.
Starbucks is not taking the case lightly. Jaime Riley, a spokeswoman for the company, said that it is investigating the complaints. While refusing to discuss the details of the case, Riley said that the company “believes the facts will demonstrate clearly that Starbucks did not discriminate.”
Days after the New York group filed suit, Starbucks posted a lengthy statement on its web site, entitled “Starbucks on Inclusion of Deaf Community.” In it the company says:
“Recent allegations have surfaced in the media regarding the treatment of some Deaf customers in two of our New York City stores. On behalf of the over 200,000 partners (employees), we want to take the opportunity to be clear that discrimination of any kind is not tolerated at Starbucks. We take these allegations very seriously, and believe they are neither consistent with our values nor our track record of engaging the Deaf community both as partners and as customers.”
It adds, “We want Starbucks to be a place where Deaf people want to work and visit. We strive to provide a Starbucks Experience that is culturally sensitive and inclusive of Deaf etiquette. We are proud of our continued growth in recruiting and employing members of the Deaf community.
“We provide training, including American Sign Language as well as a ‘Creating a Deaf Friendly Environment’ course, to help engage our partners in delivering an accessible environment for all. We also provide communications equipment and resources to our Deaf partners for interpreting services such as video relay interpreting services, real time captioning, flashing strobe light signalers for emergency evacuation notice, and video captioning.”
WHICH PICTURE WILL THE COURT SEE?
Clearly, there is a huge chasm between the company’s picture of how its coffeehouses treat customers who can’t hear and what the plaintiffs say they experienced at two particular Starbucks in Manhattan.
Barring an out-of-court settlement between the parties, which is how such suits are often resolved, it will be up to the court to determine which of the alternate realities presented is closer to the truth.