Lawsuit Claims Harassment At Starbucks

A former Starbucks worker says a manager at one of the coffee retailer's Redmond stores repeatedly rubbed up against her at work, then broke into her home one day and went through her underwear drawer. Despite her protests, Starbucks refused to fire him, she said in a lawsuit filed yesterday against the company.

Contrary to its image of taking care of its employees, Starbucks is arrogant and unresponsive to workers who complain about sexual harassment, said the woman's attorney, Yvonne Kinoshita Ward, after filing the suit in King County Superior Court.

Ward filed the lawsuit on behalf of three women who say they were groped by male Starbucks managers, and a man who said he was harassed by co-workers, then eventually fired, after he confided to his supervisor he had the virus that causes AIDS. Ward alleges the four were victims of discrimination based on sex, age or disability.

The filing comes on the heels of another lawsuit Ward filed against Starbucks in February in which three women said they were sexually harassed by male employees, then were fired or quit because of a hostile work environment.

Alan Gulick, a Starbucks spokesman, said the company has not been served with yesterday's complaint but will "thoroughly investigate" the allegations when it receives its copy. The company "does not tolerate discrimination or improper behavior of any kind," Gulick said. "This is contrary to our values and everything we stand for."

The latest suit comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Friday that makes it easier for employees to sue employers for sexual harassment. The high court held workers no longer have to prove an employer knew or should have known about sexual harassment and then failed to stop it.

Companies, on the other hand, can defend against such suits if they can prove they "exercised reasonable care to prevent or correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior" and the employee failed to take advantage of corrective remedies, the justices said in a 7-2 ruling.

Starbucks' employee handbook says harassment or discrimination of any type is strictly prohibited. If an employee faces or witnesses harassment, he or she is to tell the offender the behavior is unwelcome. If it continues, the employee must report it to a manager or the human-resources department, according to Starbucks policy.

Ward said that when her clients complained to their managers and human-resources officials, they were fired or ignored.

In the original suit filed in February, Starbucks said it found a harassment complaint by former Starbucks scientist Rebecca Hom to be groundless. But Ward said that conclusion was tainted because the investigator worked for a law firm representing Starbucks. The suit, which two other women subsequently joined as plaintiffs, is pending in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Starbucks rejected the claims of the other two women who had joined Hom's lawsuit.

In the latest suit, Ward alleged Niki Christensen, 23, was the target of unsolicited touching and rubbing of her arms and back by her store manager, Blake Woolsey.

On May 27, 1997, Woolsey broke into Christensen's Kirkland home and went through her underwear drawer, Ward said in her suit. A construction worker nearby called police and Woolsey was arrested.

Woolsey pleaded guilty on March 10 to first-degree criminal trespass, according to Dan Donohoe, spokesman for the King County Prosecutor's Office. He was fined $500 and sentenced to up to a year in jail, but the jail time was deferred on condition he perform 240 hours of community service, said Donohoe.

Gulick said Woolsey left Starbucks more than a year ago. He would not describe the circumstances of his departure. But Ward said Starbucks refused to fire him, even after the Prosecutor's Office filed charges against him.

Woolsey could not be reached for comment.

Christensen took a leave of absence from Starbucks, then quit.

In a second incident, Sarah Dunbar, a shift supervisor at a San Jose-area Starbucks, said her supervisor stared at her breasts, told her he liked them and pressed her to him. When she complained, other Starbucks managers told her she was overreacting, Ward said in the lawsuit. Dunbar was "fired without explanation" last year, said Ward.

A third plaintiff, only identified as PB, said she was trying to supervise a Seattle-area manager who was inappropriately touching female employees and doing poor work. The manager turned around and complained about PB to the district manager. The district manager discharged PB, who was over 40, and kept the store manager, 27, said Ward.

Finally, according to the suit, Michael Luck, a former Marine who was working in the Starbucks roasting plant in Seattle, said he learned in fall 1996 that he was-HIV positive. He confided to his supervisor, who then violated that confidentiality and told others about Luck's medical condition, said Ward. Luck became "the target of harassment and ridicule," according to the suit.

Starbucks fired Luck in 1997 for allegedly talking about his complaint of disability discrimination to a co-worker, which it had ordered him not to do, said Ward.

The suit seeks back pay, fringe benefits and compensation for frustration, distress and humiliation.