Transgender Man's Discrimination Lawsuit Against Starbucks to Proceed
By Mila Madison
Paul Bray, 43, is alleging that employees at Starbucks coffee shops in Eden Prairie and Edina, Minnesota refused to serve him after learning that he was transgender.
According to the lawsuit, Bray frequented a Starbucks shop in Eden Prairie between 2012 and 2013 where he developed a friendship with Sophia Peka, an employee who often worked at the drive-through window. According to Bray, she provided good customer service and he had once even invited Peka to lunch.
In March 2013, Bray had disclosed he was transgender to another Starbucks employee, Adam Voth, explaining that his transition from female to male was the reason he had a different name on his credit card. Voth had promised that he would keep the information confidential. On July 3, 2013, Peka took Bray’s order at the drive-through window and appeared to be very angry, grabbing his credit card and also slamming the window shut. Five minutes later, a different Starbucks employee gave Bray his credit card and coffee. As he was leaving, Bray saw Peka serving other customers at the window. Several days later he also noticed Peka serving other customers, but she would walk away whenever Bray approached.
Bray complained to a shift manager who informed him that Peka was uncomfortable interacting with him because he was not “a real man,” and when he had 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 claims he did receive adequate service from other employees.
In October 2013, Bray went to the Eden Prairie Starbucks and saw Peka pointing her finger at him while saying “That’s him.” Shortly after, another employee appeared disgusted and hesitated while handing Bray his drink. Bray again complained to management and to date has not received a response. He then stopped patronizing the Eden Prairie Starbucks.
Bray then began to get his coffee at a Starbucks store in Edina. One employee, Amanda Bretvold, had frequently served Bray and they had friendly conversations. One day at the new location, Bray thought he recognized an employee who used to work at the Eden Prairie Starbucks. After Bray had ordered coffee, Bratvold and another employee abruptly left the counter, the ruling said.
As he was drinking 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, but they denied the employees did anything wrong.
Bray sued Starbucks in July 2014, alleging that it was a public place that had violated Minnesota prohibitions against discrimination, harassment, and the creation of a hostile environment based on sexual orientation. He also made claims of negligent supervision by Starbucks management. He had also alleged that he suffered “significant emotional distress, shame, humiliation and embarrassment.”
In early 2017, the Hennepin County District Court threw out Bray’s complaint after ruling that he didn’t prove the discrimination was based on his transgender status. The district court also ruled that Bray did not have the right to sue over allegations from July 2013, as it had expired under a one-year statute of limitations established by the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).
A three-judge panel of the appeals court has now 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.”
While the court says that Bray can only base his suit on allegations that occurred after July 2013, any evidence regarding conduct before that date is not barred by the statute of limitations. Larkin also wrote that the record reasonably supports a conclusion that Starbucks treated Bray more adversely after disclosing the fact that he was transgender to Voth. It was also found that other employees began to treat Bray rudely, and he experienced wait times that were up to 10 minutes longer than normal. “Starbucks has not articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employees’ actions,” Larkin also wrote.
Reggie Borges, a Starbucks’ corporate media representative, said, “we are disappointed with the ruling from the Minnesota Court of Appeals and are evaluating our options.”
Attorneys for Paul Bray have not yet responded to requests for comments regarding the case.