The former Starbucks manager who called the police on two non-paying black customers earlier this month may have a good case for bringing a defamation suit against the coffee company.
In numerous public statements, Starbucks and its CEO Kevin Johnson have gone out of their way to imply that the female manager, identified in media reports as Holly Hylton, was acting on subconscious racial motivations when she told the loitering customers to either buy a beverage or get out of her store. Crucially, Starbucks has also strongly implied that, as a factual matter, the manager violated company policy.
Defamation law varies by state, but the gist is simple: Negligently saying, or implying, something that is provably false about a private person constitutes actionable defamation, as long as the statement harms the victim’s reputation.
In Pennsylvania, where the incident occurred, defamation is governed by 42 § 8343. The statute is a typical defamation law, and it puts the burden on the plaintiff to show, among other things, that the statement was made about the plaintiff, was false, and caused damages.
Johnson has called the manager’s conduct “reprehensible” and ordered a shutdown of its US stores for training to address “implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome.”
On its official Twitter account, Starbucks tweeted Tuesday: “We’re taking a hard look at who we are as a company. We’re ashamed & recognize that racial bias is a problem we must address.” The company added: “There are countless examples of implicit bias resulting in discrimination against people of color, both in and outside our stores.”
And a Starbucks spokesperson has said that “in this situation, the police never should have been called.”
A reasonable person would conclude that Starbucks is calling Hylton, at best, an unwitting racist. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Starbucks is saying its manager failed to follow store policy as a factual matter.
Calling someone a racist might seem to be an opinion (and opinions, even poorly reasoned ones, cannot form the basis of a defamation lawsuit). But courts have shown a willingness to entertain defamation suits against companies that irresponsibly misrepresent provable facts and, in doing so, portray people as racist.
Just last year, a federal appeals court reinstated a New Orleans professor’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, which was based on his claim that the paper negligently portrayed him as a racist supporter of slavery.
“If, as [Professor] Block has pleaded, he stated during the interview that slavery was ‘not so bad’ except for its involuntariness, a reasonable jury could determine that the NYT’s decontextualized quotation falsely portrayed him as communicating that chattel slavery itself was not problematic – exactly the opposite of the point that he says he was making,” the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
Similarly, Hylton can claim that the company’s decontextualized accounts of what occurred in the store falsely portray her as acting on her alleged disdain of black people, which obviously harms her reputation. Starbucks has not provided much information about how long the customers were in the store, or what its precise policy for dealing with non-paying customers is — leaving people free to speculate that Hylton is simply a racist.
Hylton can also likely meet her burden of showing that Starbucks’ claim that she violated store policy is false. In fact, the same company spokesperson who said the police should never have been called also said that the standard policy is to call the police when non-purchasers refuse to leave the store.
“In this particular store, the guidelines were that partners must ask unpaying customers to leave the store, and police were to be called if they refused,” a Starbucks spokeswoman told The Washington Post last week. It seems that following the guidelines is exactly what the manager did.
Nowhere on its Twitter feed, or in its public statements, does Starbucks explain how long the two black customers who refused to purchase anything (or leave the store when asked) remained in the establishment. While the company strongly implies the manager violated company policy, nowhere does Starbucks bother to elaborate on its marching orders for dealing with loitering customers. At the moment, it seems there are no limitations on remaining in a Starbucks indefinitely without buying a beverage.
In fact, Starbucks company policy seems so scattershot and poorly communicated that a YouTuber was recently able to stroll into a Starbucks and demand a free coffee — with caramel and milk — as “Starbucks reparations.” An unwitting barista obliged cheerily, seemingly convinced that the policy was real.
If, hypothetically, you kick a man out of your store because he’s taking up valuable space without buying anything — which is your right — and then your company fires you, calls you reprehensible, says you broke policy and institutes racial bias training, then your company is no longer simply voicing its opinion that you are racist.
It is saying it had policies you objectively broke, and it’s effectively denying (through omission) that the customers were trespassing at all. Those are implied factual assertions, and they can form the basis of a defamation suit.
It might be argued that because the manager has not been publicly named by Starbucks, she doesn’t have a defamation case. After all, defamation is all about losing reputation in your community — and you can’t lose reputation if you’re anonymous.
But Hylton’s name was apparently quickly determined by media outlets based on information provided by Starbucks. And her friends and coworkers certainly know who she is, and they are seeing the thousands upon thousands of tweets and official statements that she is a racist and an awful human being who should never find employment again. That’s enough to trigger the protections of defamation law — particularly for private citizens.
There are additional facts that, of course, could damage Hylton’s case. For example, reports are surfacing of a former employee of Hylton’s claiming that she allegedly behaved in a racist manner in the past, and was “uncomfortable” around black customers. While the claims are unverified, Hylton would have a harder time fighting Starbucks’ implicit accusations if these stories are corroborated.
Johnson, Starbucks CEO, recently met with the two black men who were removed from the store to personally apologize. Regardless of the strength of Hylton’s potential claim, the CEO should probably make time to meet with his humiliated former store manager as well — or she might have a chance to take him to court for her own “Starbucks reparations.”
Gregg Re is a handsome, jovial attorney.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.