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Minnesota Court of Appeals rules a transgender man’s discrimination lawsuit against Starbucks can proceed

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reinstated a transgender man’s discrimination lawsuit Tuesday alleging that employees at Starbucks coffee shops in Eden Prairie and Edina refused to serve him.

Earlier this year, Hennepin County District Court threw out the complaint because the plaintiff, Paul Bray, 43, didn’t prove the discrimination was based on his transgender status. The district court also ruled that Bray’s right to sue over allegations from July 2013 had expired under the one-year statute of limitations established by the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).

A three-judge panel of the appeals court found that the court record reasonably supports a conclusion that Starbucks treated Bray more harshly than other customers. Judge Michelle Larkin wrote that the panel was reversing the lower court’s ruling “because there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Starbucks discriminated against Bray because he was transgender.”

The attorneys for Bray didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Reggie Borges, Starbucks’ corporate media representative in Seattle, said, “we are disappointed with the ruling from the Minnesota Court of Appeals and are evaluating our options.”

According to the lawsuit, Bray frequently visited a Starbucks shop in Eden Prairie between 2012 and 2013 and became friends with Sophia Peka, an employee who often worked at the drive-through window. She provided good customer service and Bray once invited her to lunch.

Bray identifies himself as a “transgender/transsexual male,” and began hormone therapy in September 2012, court records show. In March 2013, Bray legally changed his name to Paul Allen Bray and informed another Starbucks employee, Adam Voth that he was transitioning from female to male.

Starbucks’ attorneys argued that there were significant periods of time that Bray got adequate service and denied that employees discriminated against him.

The appeals court summarized Bray’s case this way: Bray shared information about his sex change to avoid confusion or suspicion about the new name on his credit card, and Voth promised that he would keep this information confidential, the court ruling says. On July 3, 2013, Peka took Bray’s order at the drive-through and appeared to be very angry, grabbing his credit card and slamming the window very hard.

Five minutes later, another Starbucks employee gave Bray his credit card and coffee. As Bray left, he saw Peka serving other customers at the window. Several days later he also noticed Peka serving customers, but she would walk away whenever Bray approached.

Bray complained to a shift manager, who told him that Peka was uncomfortable interacting with Bray because he was not “a real man,” the court ruling said. When asked for clarification, the manager said he meant it was because he was transgender. In the following weeks, Bray continued to get coffee at the Eden Prairie Starbucks, but Peka didn’t serve him. He did receive adequate service from other employees.

Another incident occurred in October. Bray went to the shop and saw Peka point her finger at him and say, “That’s him.” Afterward, another employee appeared disgusted and hesitated when handing Bray his drink, the ruling said. Bray again complained to management yet received no response. He stopped going to the Eden Prairie shop.

Bray then started to get his coffee at a Starbucks store in Edina. One employee, Amanda Bretvold, frequently served Bray and they had friendly conversations. A few days later, Bray thought he recognized an employee who used to work at the Eden Prairie shop. When he ordered coffee, Bratvold and another employee abruptly left the counter, the ruling said.

As he drank his coffee, a female employee stopped close to Bray and stared at his body. The employee then spoke to Bretvold through her headset, saying, “I want to have sex with him.”

Bray again complained to management, who denied the employees did anything wrong. In July 2014, Bray sued Starbucks, alleging that it was a public place which had violated Minnesota prohibitions against discrimination and harassment and the creation of a hostile environment based on sexual orientation, as well as claims of negligent supervision by Starbucks management. He alleged that he suffered “significant emotional distress, shame, humiliation and embarrassment.”

While the court said that Bray can only base his suit on allegations that happened after July 2013, evidence regarding conduct before that date isn’t barred by the statute of limitations. Larkin wrote that the record reasonably supports a conclusion that Starbucks treated Bray more adversely after he disclosed his transgender status to Voth. Other employees also began to treat Bray rudely, and he experienced wait times that were five to 10 minutes longer than normal.

“Starbucks has not articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employees’ actions,” Larkin wrote.

By David Chanen, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

 

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